Week-Old Wildfire Wreaks Havoc on California Vacation Spot

August 4, 2015 Updated: December 13, 2015

MIDDLETOWN, Calif.—A predictable but painful summertime ritual played out in half a dozen resort communities near California’s largest freshwater lake on Tuesday as an erratic, week-old wildfire that has wiped out dozens of buildings continued to threaten nearly 7,000 more.

As firefighters and equipment from outside the state poured in to battle the blaze burning 10 miles from Clear Lake, more than 13,000 people were required or urged to leave their homes, vacation cabins and campsites in the latest fire-prone region to find itself under siege.

“This never gets easier,” said Gina Powers, who with her husband and cats on Sunday night fled the Spring Valley home she has evacuated before in the more than two decades she has lived there. “This time it was scarier.”

State and federal fire officials said the stubborn fire had consumed more than 101 square miles by Tuesday morning after flames jumped a highway in several places. It remained 12 percent contained and was not expected to be corralled until at least Monday.

Nearly 3,000 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire that has burned over 60,000 acres has forced the evacuation of 12,000 residents in Lake County. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Nearly 3,000 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire that has burned over 60,000 acres has forced the evacuation of 12,000 residents in Lake County. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

‘Rocky’ Fire Is Highest Priority

The conflagration, commonly called the “Rocky Fire,” is by far the largest of 11 burning in Northern California on Wednesday. It started on July 29 in drought-withered brush that has not burned in years in the Lower Lake area, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. A cause has not been determined.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, has the wildfire listed as the nation’s highest priority for crews and equipment even as potentially destructive blazes burned in Oregon and Washington, spokesman Mike Ferris said.

Ferris called the fire “one big monster.”

“In Northern California alone, all their resources are committed, and they are having to go outside the geographic area to get resources, whether it’s aircraft or firefighters,” Ferris said.

With more than 3,000 firefighters battling the smoky blaze and evacuees seeking shelter, motels were booked up for days within miles.

Margot Simpson, a manager at the Red Cross evacuation center set up at Middletown High School, said she hadn’t had any luck finding a room for a person in a wheelchair after searching four of the bigger nearby communities.

CalFire firefighter Bo Santiago lights a backfire as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. The fire has charred more than 60,000 acres and destroyed at least 24 residences. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)
CalFire firefighter Bo Santiago lights a backfire as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. The fire has charred more than 60,000 acres and destroyed at least 24 residences. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)

“I started in the phone book at the top of the list, and I started going down and I got nothing,” she said.

Vicki Estrella, who has lived in the area for 22 years, stayed in the high school with her husband and their dog.

“It’s amazing the way that thing spread,” Estrella said. “There was smoke 300 feet in the air.”

Many people not affected by the fires stepped up to help. Tabetha Atwood, the owner of Our Happy Tails Etc., a local doggy bakery, was helping to match frightened dogs with their owners at a command center at the Moose Lodge in Clearlake Oaks that was serving as a community assistance center.

Atwood also had dog treats on hand for people who came by with their pets while other volunteers gave out pillows, apples and piles of French toast to people displaced by the fire.

“These are our friends, our family and our neighbors,” she said.

Flames from a backfire operation burns through a grove of trees as firefighters try to head off the Rocky Fire on August 3, 2015 near Clear Lake, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Flames from a backfire operation burns through a grove of trees as firefighters try to head off the Rocky Fire on August 3, 2015 near Clear Lake, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

High Winds Push Fire Towards Homes

By Tuesday afternoon, with 15- to 20-mph winds coming from the northwest, the Moose Lodge itself was being threatened and the people there asked to leave.

Layna Rivas of Clearlake Oaks tried to remain calm after checking the latest map showing the wildfire’s overnight progress. It showed the artists’ haven she has spent the last five years building directly in the flames’ path.

Rivas was thinking of her baby grand piano in a studio made out of straw bales.

“Worst part is I can’t get in to see what’s been damaged or no,” she said. “My heart is heavy at the thought of my once epic view of the valley that had an array of life and colors now grey and lifeless.”

Cooler weather Tuesday was helping crews build a buffer between the flames and some of the estimated 6,900 homes it threatens. Despite the fire’s growth, no additional homes were consumed outside the two dozen already destroyed.

“With these drought-stricken fuels, it’s just moving at an extremely high rate of speed.”
— Battalion Chief Carl Schwettmann, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

Crews have conducted controlled burns, setting fire to shrubs to rob the blaze of fuel and protect homes in a rural area of grasslands and steep hills. Nearly a week into the fight, fatigue has set in.

“There were too many (spot fires) for us to pick up,” Battalion Chief Carl Schwettmann of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told the San Francisco Chronicle. “With these drought-stricken fuels, it’s just moving at an extremely high rate of speed.”

Cal Fire firefighters watch a back burn while fighting the Rocky fire off highway 20 near Clear Lake, California on August 2, 2015. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Cal Fire firefighters watch a back burn while fighting the Rocky fire off highway 20 near Clear Lake, California on August 2, 2015. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Clear Lake, which at 70 square miles is the largest natural lake entirely within California, is a popular spot for boaters and campers. Despite the proximity of the fire, no homes around the lake were considered at risk on Tuesday, fire officials said.

President Barack Obama was briefed on the fire and has asked his aides to stay in close touch with California Gov. Jerry Brown and other local officials, the White House said.