Thousands of California acres are ablaze as firefighters battle at least 21 wildfires throughout the state, but while many of those fires are small or mostly contained, the wind and heat that are spreading the Rocky Fire in Northern California — and the area’s steep terrain — are causing the most concern.
However, the clouds Sunday carried silver linings: cooler temperatures and increased humidity. Even with high winds in the area, those conditions should reduce the blaze’s spread, though fire officials warned that the state’s drought has been so severe, firefighters might need more than cooler temperatures to douse the blaze.
Since Saturday, the fire spread by almost 24,000 acres and has now consumed 46,000 acres in Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties, according to Daniel Berland, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
Fifty residences and outbuildings have been destroyed and authorities estimate more than 6,000 structures face a direct threat.
“The fire is expected to have significant activity and growth,” Cal Fire said in its late Saturday advisory. “Current strategic constraints include lack of access to areas of the fire, very hot and dry weather, critical fuels and changing winds. … In total, all evacuations impact over 12,100 citizens living in over 5,156 residences.”
Cal Fire has posted a list of mandatory evacuations, advisories, evacuation centers and road closures on its website.
After four days battling the blaze just east of Lower Lake, a town of 1,300, it is only 5% contained. Almost 2,000 fire personnel, 180 engines, four air tankers and 19 helicopters are participating in the effort.
Still, some Lake County residents carried on as usual amid the precarious conditions.
“We can see the smoke and it appears to be blowing near us but there are no evacuations here that I know of. We are open for business and hoping the wind blows the other way because we have two tournaments tomorrow,” Ted Mattila of Buckingham Golf and Country Club in Kelseyville said Saturday.
In all, about 9,000 firefighters worked 21 fires Saturday in California — from the Frog Fire near the Oregon border, to the Cutca blaze near Mexico. The state’s four-year drought has created ideal conditions for wildfires, Cal Fire said.
At least three large fires were contained Saturday, while two smaller fires merged into a larger one, the department said.
One fireman was killed in the line of duty. The U.S. Forest Service confirmed that David Ruhl of Rapid City, South Dakota, died fighting the Frog Fire in Northern California’s Modoc National Forest, near Adin. Rescuers found his body Friday morning, the forest service said, adding that the death of the father of two remains under investigation.
In two other fires — the Willow Fire northeast of North Fork in the Sierra National Forest and the Cabin Fire east of Porterville in the Sequoia National Forest — authorities reported strides.
The Willow Fire is 60% contained, and firefighters made “good progress” with a controlled-burn operation intended to deprive the blaze of more fuel, the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team said.
“Air resources will support ground crew as needed (as) soon as smoke conditions clear and allow for safe aerial operations,” the team said.
Evacuation orders remain in effect for the blaze that has already consumed more than 5,600 acres.
The Cabin Fire, which has burned 2,600 acres since mid-July, remained relatively calm overnight, but it was only 2% contained, according to a news release from the Sequoia National Forest.
“If the weather conditions are favorable today, firefighters may begin strategic firing operation near Pecks (Canyon) to remove unburned fuels between the fire line and the main fire in the afternoon,” the statement said.
Neither the Willow nor the Cabin fires have destroyed any structures, but six people have been injured in the Willow Fire.
Thousands of lightning strikes since Thursday have ignited hundreds of small wildfires, but the thunderstorms brought little rain, authorities said, and the smaller fires became part of larger fires.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Friday to help gather additional resources.
The fires range in size. The White Fire in Santa Barbara County is about 50 acres, the deadly Frog Fire has consumed at least 3,000 acres since it was spotted Thursday and the recently snuffed-out Lake Fire in San Bernandino County burned more than 31,000 acres before it was contained.
Cal Fire says most of the fires are more than 60% contained. However, the land damage has been substantial in some cases. Fires in Southern California’s San Bernardino County and northern California’s Alpine county have incinerated nearly 50,000 acres.
California’s record-setting drought, entering its fourth year, has “turned much of the state into a tinderbox,” Gov. Brown said.
Temperatures in Sacramento and other areas of northern California, where many of the fires are located, have topped 100 degrees recently.