Mendocino Burning

by Bruce Anderson, June 25, 2008

Friday evening about seven, as Old Testament reggae entertained rapturous crowds at the Boonville Fairgrounds with rhythmic warnings that Judgment Day would soon be upon us, a sudden rain began, a heavy rain for the brief minutes it fell, and when the rain disappeared as unexpectedly as it had appeared, lightning commenced, bolts of it hurled into every part of the Anderson Valley, broad sheets of it briefly illuminating the hills.

For the apocalyptic-minded the unprecedented storm was thrilling. The more prosaic knew that where there was lightning, especially this much lightning, there would be fire.

It was dry lightning, lightning not followed by rain, and by nightfall there was more and more of it, and it continued into the early hours of Saturday morning. The California Department of Forestry has estimated the total number of lightning strikes to hit Mendocino County "as somewhere between 5 and 6 thousand."

Mendocino County people had never seen anything like it at this time of the year. Dry lightning is common in the Fall, as are the first rains the lightning inevitably brings with it in late September and October. We expect it then, we've never seen it now, not in the middle of June with the first day of summer being last Saturday and the most intense weeks of the fire season still two months away.

But this dry lightning storm was not only unprecedented in this place at this time of year, it was preceded by a brief but heavy downpour. Ordinarily, rain falls after dry lightning.

Calfire spokeswoman, Tracy Boudreaux, said dry lightning fires this time of year are "very unusual. Usually they occur in the fall, but they come with rain mostly. It is unprecedented to see them this early in the year with this many fires."

The rain began falling on Boonville at 7pm Friday night. It ceased 15 minutes later and lightning commenced, lightning on a scale and of an intensity no one in the Anderson Valley had ever seen here. Two hours later, about 9, the first reports of fires were crackling over the emergency radio system and scanners, and by Saturday morning there were reports of fresh fires everywhere in Mendocino County, and then everywhere in Northern California, and the fires have continued everywhere in the County, 131 of them, late into Tuesday.

Sixty of the 131 are "unstaffed" because they are slowly chewing through Mendocino County's most remote regions. The ongoing fear is that the pure volume of them, staffed or unstaffed, will suddenly roar through the County if the winds pick up, but so far the winds have been little more than breezes, the night air cool into the mid-50's, conditions auguring well for full suppression — if they hold.

The number of fires, however, is in constant upward flux; no sooner is one declared over, one or two new ones are reported. A particularly stubborn blaze in the Hungry Hollow area of lower Nash Mill Road was reported late Monday and was being fought Tuesday morning with helicopter water drops reinforced by both sanctioned and neighborhood firefighters on the ground, much of the fight being conducted on steep hillsides. Don Gowan, long-time local firefighter, had requested flotation pumps to draw water from Hungry Hollow Creek to help stop the fires threatening structures in the area.

Above Hungry Hollow, on Whipple Ridge, east of Philo, there was a heavy concentration of firefighters and equipment fighting a fire in difficult terrain on Tuesday afternoon.

The Anderson Valley district is home to seven fires: two to the west burning east towards Signal Ridge; another in the Hungry Hollow area of Nash Mill Road below a blaze to the east above it on Whipple Ridge. There is a large fire burning down Navarro Ridge towards Flynn Creek. There are not, as of Tuesday afternoon, any fires reported elsewhere in the Valley.

At the command center at Anderson Valley's Firehouse, CalFire's Captain Mark McKey is coordinating the fight against the local fires, none of which, as of Monday, were thought to be threatening structures. McKey said that "firefighting in the Valley could take two weeks or more because of the remoteness of many of the fires, the limited resources available and the extent of mop up and clean up required." McKey also said he was "worried about how the State was going to fund the fire season with so much money going into these fires so early in the season."

Sheriff Tom Allman reported Tuesday morning that five homes and a barn near Covelo had been consumed by flames. Allman said some 525 homes in various areas of the County are threatened.

A 50-person CalFire "Incident Command Team" is establishing a headquarters at the Ukiah Fairgrounds from where an estimated 500 firefighters will be dispatched to areas badly in need of firefighting reinforcements.

Considering the number of fires, numbered at 131 Tuesday morning, damage has so far been light, but an estimated 85,000 acres of forest and open range have been consumed.

Most of the Anderson Valley fires are in the 15 to 80 acre range, one in the hundreds and one in the thousands, and the largest are not burning in Anderson Valley but in its outlying precincts to the west in the remote hills generally described as the Cliff Ridge-Maple Basin and Mallo Pass areas.

These two fires were expected to merge and could burn into Signal Ridge above the Navarro River and the Philo region of the Anderson Valley.

Anderson Valley Fire Chief Colin Wilson, acting on his own authority Monday afternoon, strongly recommended that residents of Nash Mill; Rancho Navarro; Clow Ridge; Mountain View Road in the vicinity of the Hanes Ranch; and Signal Ridge in the area of the Rossi Ranch evacuate their homes.

The largest fire in what is generally considered the northern perimeter of the Anderson Valley has burned some 1,400 acres between the uninhabited end of Navarro Ridge Road and Flynn Creek Road.

Tuesday morning flames had reached the roadside pavement of Mountain View Road around mile marker 9 near Manchester.

A fire near Orr Hot Springs has burned east into Running Springs Road above Ukiah.

The Chicken Ridge area of Covelo has been evacuated, and CDF says there are "many fires burning in the Mendocino National Forest surrounding Covelo.

Fires have been reported at Greenfield Ranch near Ukiah, and there were unconfirmed reports Tuesday afternoon that a mandatory evacuation of Greenfield had been ordered. We received a frantic call Monday afternoon from Greenfield resident who said, "Get us some help. Nobody cares about us because we're hippies. All they have up here right now is a fat guy on a tractor!"

There are several fires near Laytonville; 800 acres at Table Mountain, Albion, have burned; there is a fire in Reeves Canyon west of Ukiah, and an unstaffed fire east of Willits on the old Hearst-Willits Road, and a fire between Lake Pillsbury and Potter Valley.

Three National Guard helicopters are on duty in the Anderson Valley, three in other areas of the County.

The Boonville Fire house staff was seeing to the feeding of local firefighters. A number of locals had appeared with food and drink sufficient for the small army of fire personnel that grows larger by the hour. One man appeared with cots and bedding. Roughly 20 out of town firefighters are sleeping in the high school gym. The Philo Grange has been unofficially designated as an evacuation emergency shelter.

Anderson Valley had some 12 engines on the fires by Sunday and almost all available volunteers, numbering about 30, were on the fire lines.

Gary Hudson of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department told the Ukiah Daily Journal that by Tuesday morning "We broke all previous 911 records. On Saturday we had 480 calls; the record before that was 280. If you all remember that every 911 call from unincorporated areas comes through our center first, my hat is off to all the dispatchers."

The Mendocino Redwood Company was providing heavy equipment and operators to beat back the Anderson Valley fires. MRC, following the persistent Mouse Pass fire south of the Navarro River where firefighters had trouble finding adequate emergency supplies of water several years ago, has installed water tanks at strategic locations throughout its forests in the Navarro area of the valley.

At the Boonville Fire Station late Tuesday afternoon, fires were being tracked on wall-mounted maps and whiteboards. There were a dozen named fires listed in the Anderson Valley, five of which had been defeated. Firefighters and support volunteers were constantly in and out, bringing in food and drink and supplies. Dan Kuny, a contract logger with the state during fire season, said he'd been falling trees "right on the fire line." Eddie Slotte said, "Every piece of equipment I have is out there." Deputy Squires, in civilian clothes, said he was "standing by to evacuate people."

Mendocino County Public Radio, out of its KZYX studios near Philo, has done a good job keeping people informed and amused. A woman remarked on a Monday evening talk show that she thought firefighters should be called "fire facers" rather than firefighters, fire facers being, apparently, a more benign, less testosterone-charged job description.

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A reader writes: "I don't know if this is too late to get into this week's issue, but I thought I'd mention that my family and I just returned from a camp-out on Hull Mountain above Lake Pillsbury where we were obliged to depart prematurely owing to the fantastic number of little fires burning around us. Friday night, we were sitting on the edge of a downslope meadow and watching a spectacular electrical storm; by Saturday we were watching a Mephistophelian red glow dancing in the smoke clouds across the valley in at least four spots. By Sunday the air was thick and brown and when the breeze freshened, we broke camp. At the Soda Creek store (the sign proclaims it as the 'Soda Cree' store — an obscure local tribe?) we met half a dozen tired grimy firefighters taking a brief rest stop, many of them from southern Oregon. They had their work cut out for them, to judge by the dozen (at least) plumes of smoke scattered across the mountainscape and that was just what we could see from the road. Traffic was surprisingly light. The air in Ukiah looked like Pompeii on Day Zero. Our clothes still smell of smoke."

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