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Destructive Lake County Fire Grows to 13,000 Acres, 17% Contained

LAKE COUNTY -- The Pawnee Fire has burned 13,000 acres of Lake County and at least 22 structures, while firefighters work furiously to get a handle on it.

Early Monday morning, at McClellan Airport, about 30 crew members got ready to take flight above the destructive blaze.

And it's not just the Pawnee Fire.

"Five of them, in fact," Cal Fire spokesman Brice Bennett said. "Which is kind of a precursor to what could be a very busy summer."

Bennett says Cal Fire has five tanker planes, two DC-10 aircrafts and several helicopters ready to go so crews can get to scenes like the Pawnee Fire quickly.

"Cal Fire has its air bases strategically located throughout the State of California so we can have an air asset over a fire in under about 15 minutes," Bennett said. "Fire retardant slows the progress of fires and allows firefighters to get up next to it and actually extinguish it."

On Sunday, Cal Fire aircrafts dropped 100,000 gallons of retardant. To put that into perspective, firefighters dropped 2.2 million gallons of it this past October in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Communication is key between ground and air crews. It's up to both, the eyes in the sky and the boots on the ground, to figure out the best way to the retardant.

"Communication is paramount over our fires. Together, the boots on the ground working with the air attack above is an orchestra making it so we can put out a fire quickly and safely," Bennett told FOX40.

Fire Misses Many Homes

Dozens of homeowners decided to stay with their homes in Spring Valley, risking the dangers of the fire to ensure hotspots around their home don't spread.

"I haven't thought anything about getting out of here," said one homeowner. "We got a Honda generator, and that's all we need, you know?"

But Cal Fire says that's not a smart move.

"It is a bad idea, initially, when you are asked to evacuate, that's what we ask you to do," said Cal Fire Capt. Amy Heads. "It's for your own safety. We do not take it lightly."

It's especially unsafe at the Pawnee Fire, where wind patterns have been unpredictable.

"The general wind condition that we're seeing is from the west. So it's pushing toward the east, which is different from over the weekend when it started we were having a north-northeast push," Head said.

Luckily for most of Monday, the winds were pushing east toward the Indian Valley Reservoir and away from the 600 or so homes that are now under an evacuation order in Springs Valley. But over the weekend some homes burned.

While some residents are working to make sure that doesn't happen to their homes, they complained the water company in the area is not making it easy for them.

The Pawnee Fire spread to a much less populated area on Monday, a relief to firefighters and homeowners. But winds can change and homes could still be in danger.

"This is the highest concentration of populated area. There's approximately 600 homes that have been evacuated and are still threatened at this time," Cal Fire Captain Amy Head said. "I think you could breathe a little sigh of relief that it's sort of burned right around this area. But there is that concern that if there's any wind changes or Mother Nature throws us a curve ball."

Police say one looter was arrested. Officers are keeping an eye on homes in evacuated areas.

Evacuations Continue

As the Pawnee Fire spreads east, Cal Fire’s air attack chases after it and so do the Lake County Sheriff's evacuation orders.

"I just got in this truck and left and left everything there. I’m not gonna... Yeah, it changes directions, it burns real quick. They say leave, leave," said resident Alan Phillips.

Phillips was on the road, fleeing his home in Double Eagle Ranch, where the latest orders to evacuate came down Monday. That makes 1,500 people total evacuated so far.

The Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge was already packed Monday as a temporary evacuation shelter became standing-room-only while firefighters and law enforcement held a community meeting. Those staying there heard there is some hope they could get back in their homes sometime this week.

"You know what? I don’t care. It’s going to be longer if it’s going to be longer," said Clearlake Oaks resident Dale Nance. "We’re just going to hang in there, you know? It’s gotta be safe for us to go back inside."

The good news was that the most active fire spread was toward some of the least populated parts of the county. The terrain is particularly rugged so there’s only a scattering of homes but that also makes it harder for firefighters to get to.