A fast-moving wildfire that has ripped through rural Lake County, destroying homes and forcing hundreds to flee, accelerated Sunday, burning into historic downtown Lower Lake.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported that at least four homes had burned by Sunday morning. But later, more houses were visibly ablaze, including properties on Quarterhorse Lane, Mustang Court and Riverview Drive. Early Sunday evening, commercial structures in Lower Lake were in flames.
Cal Fire said the fire was only 5 percent contained.
The fire reached Main Street in Lower Lake, a town of about 1,200, and burned the post office and several businesses as black smoke loomed over the downtown area. Doctors and nurses at a hospital in Clearlake, a neighboring town of about 15,000, rushed to transfer patients to another hospital 25 miles away while firefighters carried goats and other animals to safety as homes burned around them.
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The fire broke out Saturday afternoon and grew to more than 3 square miles as firefighters struggled to get a handle on the largely out-of-control blaze amid hot, windy conditions.
The fire was creating its own weather pattern and shifted direction into populated areas in the afternoon, said Suzie Blankenship, a spokeswoman for the Cal Fire.
“As it grows, the fire is pushing heat in front of it and it gets critically dry,” Blankenship said.
Officials confirmed four homes were destroyed, although eyewitnesses could see many more.
The fire was throwing embers and spreading rapidly because of parched conditions brought on by the state’s historic drought, officials said. Large, explosive fires have torn through dried-out or hard-to-reach areas across California this summer, including a stubborn blaze near the picturesque Big Sur coastline that has burned 113 square miles since late July and destroyed nearly 60 homes.
For residents in the community near Lower Lake, where the Clayton Fire has consumed 2,000 acres since igniting Saturday evening, fleeing menacing fires has become an unwelcome routine. The Valley Fire of 2015, the third most destructive in state history, burned about 15 miles south of the current blaze.
That blaze killed four people and destroyed more than 1,300 homes. A report issued this week concluded that faulty wiring in a hot tub ignited the 120-square-mile fire.
Ironically, the Habitat for Humanity office in Lower Lake was working to raise money to help rebuild homes destroyed by last year’s fire.
Winds that fanned the Clayton Fire overnight had been expected to be calm throughout Sunday, but by afternoon, blustery winds and high temperatures had the fire flaring up along Morgan Valley Road.
Evacuation orders were extended to residents on Bonham Road and Quarterhorse Lane, which branch off from Morgan Valley, as well as farther north in Clearlake for the tract east of Highway 53.
Rick Davis, 40, stood on a rooftop in the Morgan Valley area with his garden hose as flames surrounded him on three sides and huge walls of smoke wafted up.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep the roof wet so if an ember hits, it won’t all go up.”
Davis had gone to lunch in Lower Lake when the fire was calm and the threat of his home burning was low. When he heard the flames had started up again, he rushed home to try to do what he could.
“I’m just scared,” he said. “The wind can just change.”
A short distance east of Davis’ home, Garrett Reed, 43, watched the flames grimly.
“If I see embers and ash rain down, I will turn the sprinklers on the roof and get out,” he said. “But this is my grandfather’s house and I’m not going to lose it.”
The Clayton Fire is eating up the dry brush and trees left behind by major fires that recently tore through Lake County. The Rocky and Jerusalem fires scorched the region northeast of Davis’ and Reed’s homes, while the Valley Fire claimed the area to the southwest.
“I grew up here,” Reed said. “These are all my friends’ houses that are burning, All you can do is pray for the best.”
Four helicopters and three air tankers made repeated passes over the head of the fire as it made its way toward Morgan Valley in dry brush and grassy oak woodland that is difficult for firefighters to access. Nearly 700 firefighters were in Lake County attacking the fire, said Lt. Doug Pittman, a Marin County sheriff’s spokesman working on behalf of Cal Fire.
For the hundreds of Lake County residents forced to flee their homes this weekend, the smoky haze and last-minute evacuations have become a familiar exercise after the Valley, Rocky and Jerusalem fires of last year.
“They evacuated very quickly, because they’ve seen it before,” Pittman said.
Marty Gifford, 51, was forced to evacuate Saturday. He and his mother were staying at the evacuation shelter at the Highlands Senior Services Center in Clearlake on Sunday waiting to learn if their homes were still standing.
“I don’t remember this many fires. Something is going on,” he said.
He’s lived in Lower Lake for 25 years and was at work when the fire ignited. He said he got a call to go home and gather his belongings but was stopped by local sheriff’s deputies from entering the evacuated neighborhood.
His mother, Beverly Gifford, 84, made it out of the family’s property with her two dogs, Gizmo and Szasza, before the fire got too close.
“I’m absolutely concerned, but there’s not much I can do about it,” she said of the recent fires. “Sometimes I feel like we’re in the latter days.”
“I have faith in Cal Fire,” Marty Gifford said. “I’ve seen them work miracles.”
Joyce Overton, the executive director of the Highlands Senior Services Center, said she’s converted the building into an evacuation center six times in just over a year.
“It’s scary and a little eerie,” she said of all the fires. “But we’re a community here. Last year, we weren’t prepared for it. Now to everyone that comes in I say, ‘Are you OK?’ and I give them a big hug.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.