Aug. 5 California Wildfire Update: Rocky Fire Now at 68,000 Acres
A DC-10 firefighting aircraft drops fire retardant on a ridge in front of the Rocky Fire. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Update, Noon Wednesday, Aug. 5: Tuesday's break from the hot, windy weather was more than welcome for crews battling the Rocky Fire, burning 80 miles north of San Francisco. Firefighting officials said crews made progress with some help from light rain Tuesday.
"We're able to do things like cut fire line directly on the fire's edge and not have to fall back and wait for the fire to come to us, so we can be more productive in that aspect," says Jeff Ohs, a fire battalion chief from Long Beach.
But hot temperatures are expected to return today, creating the potential once again for extreme fire conditions.
In total the fire has burned 68,300 acres and is 20 percent contained. Thirty-nine residences and 52 outbuildings have been destroyed and four structures have been damaged. The blaze isn't expected to be completely corralled until at least Monday. More than 3,000 firefighters are working on the fire.
Update, 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4: The Rocky Fire, southeast of Clear Lake, has burned 24 homes and spurred mandatory or advisory evacuation orders affecting some 13,000 people.
Listen to the Tuesday evening update below:
Update, 10:30 a.m., Tuesday, Aug. 4: The fire grew overnight to 65,000 acres, or about 101 square miles, and remains about 12 percent contained. It is expected to grow even larger today. Yesterday, firefighters were disappointed to see it cross Highway 20, into land that has plenty of fuel to burn.
"We are a little bit concerned about today's weather," says Cal Fire Capt. Don Camp. "We are expecting a slight increase of temperatures in the mid to upper 80s, but more trouble to us is we're expecting a strong eastern wind push that could potentially push the fire west into areas that haven't previously burnt."
Filmmaker Jeff Frost has been sharing images and videos of the fire on his Instagram account. This timelapse of driving through the fire gives you a glimpse at what fire crews are facing.
Update, midnight Tuesday, Aug. 4: A quick note to say that the overall acreage on the Rocky Fire was reported to have grown "just" 2,000 acres during the day Monday -- that's more than 3 square miles, which is a lot, if you're standing there looking at it. That puts the total acreage for the fire at 62,000, or about 97 square miles since it started last Wednesday.
Some 12,000 residents in the area, 80 miles north of San Francisco, are still under mandatory orders to leave their homes or have been advised they could be required to leave. The reported total of damaged structures -- 24 homes and 26 outbuildings -- has held steady since Saturday.
The relatively small total growth in the fire belies some grim moments Monday afternoon, when the blaze managed to jump Highway 20, which fire managers hoped would hold as a containment line on the northern side of the fire from the town of Clearlake 18 miles east to Highway 16. But as afternoon winds kicked up, spot fires started in several locations, forcing managers to redeploy strike teams, bulldozers, helicopters and air tankers to try to stop the new blazes from becoming established.
"The spot fires are very serious because of the winds, terrain and fuel bed," Cal Fire Scott McLean said in an email to KQED's Tara Siler.
The "fuel bed" McLean refers to involves the sprawling swath of countryside east of Clear Lake that hasn't burned in decades and decades. The vegetation -- grass, brush, oaks and pines -- is extra dry after four years of drought, and McLean and other veteran firefighters are saying this is one of the most extreme wildfires they've ever seen.
Here's Siler's interview with McLean, aired at 5:30 p.m. Monday:
Update, 8:40 a.m. Monday, Aug. 3: The predictable news Monday morning from the Rocky Fire, burning near the southeast end of Clear Lake: It's still growing. Cal Fire upped its estimate of acres burned to 60,000 -- about 94 square miles or roughly double the size of San Francisco.
But there's a welcome wrinkle in the fire agency's morning report: After a weekend that saw the blaze race uncontrolled across vast sweeps of backcountry, firefighters have made some substantial progress toward containment. Fire lines have now been completed around 12 percent of the fire perimeter, up from the constant 5 percent reported over the last several days.
Cal Fire says 3,000 firefighters have now been assigned to the incident, along with four air tankers, 19 helicopters, 57 bulldozers and 285 fire engines.
Fire maps released Monday morning also show that fire managers have turned long stretches of Highway 20, along the fire's northern edge, and Highway 16, on the eastern fringe, into de facto fire lines.
Cal Fire Capt. Tony McHale said crews conducted firing operations along both highways -- igniting fires to deprive the advancing flames of fuel. Although that tactic has proved effective, McHale said that developments Sunday afternoon showed how quickly the fire can pose new threats.
"We had a lot of drama on the western flank," McHale said, referring to the fire front near the town of Clearlake. "We had a spot fire just east of town that turned into a tremendous blow-up."
That flare-up prompted new mandatory evacuation orders for residents of rural areas east of Clearlake. Cal Fire estimates a total of 12,000 people were either ordered from their homes or advised they may have to leave. It's unclear how many have actually heeded orders to leave. The Lake County News website has reported that only a few dozen people had showed up at evacuation centers in Middletown and Kelseyville.
Update, 10:10 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 2: Cal Fire's updated acreage total for the Rocky Fire is 54,000 acres, or about 84 square miles. The fire has doubled in size over the last 24 hours and, as noted earlier, it's now the biggest fire of the state's much-dreaded 2015 fire season, and it's still just 5 percent contained.
Saturday, the fire burned rapidly to the north and east, forcing the closure of Highways 20 and 16. Sunday, Cal Fire says, the main growth in the blaze was on its northwest flank, in the general direction of the town of Clearlake.
That prompted a new round of mandatory evacuations in areas just east of that town. Cal Fire says about 12,000 people in more than 5,200 residences are under either mandatory orders to leave or have been warned they'll have to evacuate if the fire continues to spread. It's believed that most of those on alert live on the east side of Clearlake and the nearby town of Lower Lake.
A growing army of firefighters -- about 2,700 in all -- has been deployed to try to encircle the fire. Some of the increase in acreage Sunday was due to firing operations -- a tactic in which crews set fires in carefully chosen areas to deny fuel to the advancing flames.
Update, 11:05 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 2: The Rocky Fire, now burning in three counties southeast of Clear Lake, is for now the biggest blaze of California's 2015 fire season.
Cal Fire said this morning the fire, which started Wednesday afternoon, has covered 47,000 acres. That's about 73.5 square miles -- close to the same area as all of Oakland or double the size of San Francisco if you want to think of the blaze in Bay Area terms. The fire agency says the blaze is still just 5 percent contained.
The fire burned east from Lake County into Colusa and Yolo counties Saturday afternoon, apparently jumping a line ploughed by bulldozers on the blaze's northeastern flank. The flames reached the edges of Highway 20 and Highway 16 at several points, prompting closure of both routes.
Mandatory evacuation orders are in place for a large area east of Clear Lake, while an advisory alerting residents they may need to leave their homes has been issued for those living on the east side of the towns of Lower Lake and Clearlake. The fire's progress toward those two communities has slowed, however.
One piece of good news for the 2,000 firefighters brought into the battle: Weather is expected to be favorable for most of the coming week, with temperatures a little lower than normal and higher humidity expected. Afternoon conditions pose the biggest challenge, with gusty winds from the west and southwest helping push the fire further north and northeast.
Update, 9:40 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 1: The still-expanding Rocky Fire has shut down Highway 20, the main route between the southern Sacramento Valley, Clear Lake and the coast.
The route is now closed to through traffic between Highway 53, on the east shore of Clear Lake, and Highway 16 -- a distance of 18 miles. Highway 16, which runs south from Highway 20 to the Capay Valley, has also been closed to through traffic at the Yolo-Lake county line.
Cal Fire says the blaze, now burning into its fourth full day, has charred 27,000 acres -- about 42 square miles, an area a little larger than San Francisco and about half of Oakland. The fire agency say the fire has destroyed 24 homes and 26 outbuildings and is threatening about 6,000 residences, mostly in the Lake County towns of Clearlake and Lower Lake.
Residents have been ordered out of the mostly rural areas west, north and south of the fire. Residents on the east side of Clearlake and Lower Lake have been put on notice they may have to leave. Officials say the evacuation orders and advisories together affect about 12,000 people.
The fire is still reported to be 5 percent contained. The outlook? Cal Fire's evening briefing is succinct: "The fire is expected to have significant activity and growth." That's because of continued hot, dry, windy conditions -- and also because four years of drought in an area that hasn't burned in a while have helped create ideal conditions for a major conflagration.
Update, 11:35 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 1: Cal Fire is reinforcing crews still struggling to contain the Rocky Fire southeast of Clear Lake, with the blaze growing to 22,500 acres -- 35 square miles -- early Saturday.
The continued rapid spread of the fire 80 miles north of San Francisco has prompted local officials to put thousands of residents in two towns -- Lower Lake and Clearlake -- on alert for a possible evacuation. Cal Fire maps suggest the blaze has burned to within about 2 miles of Lower Lake.
About 1,600 firefighters are now battling the blaze, which broke out Wednesday just east of the town of Lower Lake and has destroyed 14 homes and 16 outbuildings so far. The fire, burning in rugged oak woodlands, chaparral and grasslands typical of much of Lake County, is just 5 percent contained.
Residents have been ordered from hundreds of homes in rural areas east of Lower Lake. Saturday morning, the Lake County Sheriff's Office issued an evacuation advisory -- not an order, but an alert that an evacuation may be ordered -- for the east sides of Lower Lake and Clearlake. About 6,100 homes and other structures are said to be threatened.
During a midday Saturday briefing, Cal Fire said the agency has about 9,000 firefighters working to contain 24 major fires across the state.
Update, 1:35 p.m. Friday, July 31: Cal Fire says the Rocky Fire, burning across the hilly countryside east of the town of Lower Lake, has consumed about 15,000 acres of oak, brush and grassland -- about 24 square miles, or half the area of San Francisco.
About 1,000 firefighters were on the lines Friday morning, and the blaze was reported just 5 percent contained. So far, the fire is believed to have destroyed three homes and an undetermined number of barns, garages and other outbuildings.
About 650 residents were ordered from their homes in a rural area near Lower Lake on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, as the newly kindled fire raced east through dry vegetation. The fire spread to the south, east and north late Thursday and early Friday, and more mandatory evacuations were ordered Friday morning. It's not immediately clear how many additional residents were affected.
YubaNet, perhaps the best non-official source of California fire news, reports Friday that about 8,000 firefighters are working on 18 major fires across the state.
Update, 11:50 a.m. Thursday, July 30: Cal Fire is rushing crews to the scene of a dangerous new fire that has forced evacuations in the hills southeast of Clear Lake.
The agency says the Rocky Fire, which began Wednesday afternoon, has burned 8,300 acres with no containment. Several homes and "multiple outbuildings" have reportedly burned in the area. Like much of the country between the Sacramento Valley and the coast, it's steep terrain, riven by canyons and dominated by oaks, chaparral and grassland.
Residents along 5 miles of Morgan Valley Road east of the town of Lower Lake were ordered from their homes as the fire spread Wednesday evening.
Cal Fire says it has about 630 firefighters on the scene, supported by eight air tankers and 11 helicopters. That's about double the number of firefighters on the scene last night, when the agency said its primary focus was on saving homes in the fire's path.
Crews on the ground Thursday are contending with temperatures expected to peak between 100 and 105 degrees today, with humidity in the teens or single digits.
That same hot, dry weather has helped revive the Wragg Fire, a 7,500-acre blaze burning north of Vacaville and west of Winters at the southeast end of Lake Berryessa. Crews aided by relatively cool, humid weather seemed last weekend to be on the way to finishing containment of the fire -- again, burning in extremely rugged country. But the return of scorching, sere conditions allowed the fire to flare up and resume its spread.
The blaze, announced at 6,591 acres early this week, has grown by about 1,000 acres in the last two days and has expanded to backup containment lines.
Update, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, July 25: Authorities have lifted all evacuation orders as fire crews continue to make rapid progress containing the fire that has burned across 6,900 acres at the southeast end of Lake Berryessa. Cal Fire says 1,825 firefighters are on the scene; the blaze was 47 percent contained as of noon Saturday.
Highway 128, the main access to Lake Berryessa from both the Napa Valley on the west and Interstate 505 on the east, was reopened Friday.
UC Davis' Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, a popular hiking destination close to Monticello Dam, remains closed as officials assess damage to trail facilities.
Firefighters are also gaining ground on a relatively small but troublesome blaze near Kyburz, on U.S. 50 about 75 miles east of Sacramento. The 200-acre Kyburz Fire is now 30 percent contained.
The incident, sparked by a vehicle that had pulled off the side of the highway, had shut down the main route to Lake Tahoe. One lane of U.S. 50 was reopened Friday, with traffic being metered at Pollock Pines to the west and Meyers to the east.
Update, 10:30 a.m. Friday, July 24: Cal Fire reports the blaze burning near Lake Berryessa, the Wragg Fire, remains at 6,900 acres burned and has upped the containment number to 20 percent. Residents of the Golden Bear Estates, between the lake and Winters, have been allowed to return home. Residents of Quail Ridge, closer to the fire front, are still under a mandatory evacuation order.
The Kyburz Fire, burning along U.S. 50 about 75 miles east of Sacramento, doubled in size overnight to 200 acres. The main impact: The highway, one of the two main routes to Lake Tahoe from the Bay Area, is closed.
The weather forecast in both places is pretty favorable for firefighters -- relatively mild temperatures and relatively high humidity, with no sustained high winds.
Update, 5:55 p.m. Thursday, July 23: Cal Fire is reporting some progress in containing the Wragg Fire, burning in rugged chaparral south of Lake Berryessa. As we noted earlier, containment is now reported at 15 percent, up from 5 percent earlier today.
Daniel Potter, who reports for KQED News and KQED Science, says that as the fire burns into more remote terrain, the threat to 200 homes that have been evacuated is easing. Weather conditions have improved somewhat, too.
"The winds have cooperated somewhat today, compared to yesterday, so firefighters are making really good progress," said Amy Head, a Cal Fire captain and information office for the Wragg Fire. "We're in obviously a very steep and rugged terrain area -- crews are having to hike in. We're using a lot of air resources as well. So it is a little bit slow-going, but we're making good progress."
Meantime, a new challenge for firefighters in the region: A blaze broke out this afternoon near the American River hamlet of Kyburz, on U.S. 50 about 75 miles east of Sacramento.
While that fire is not a big one yet -- it had burned an estimated 100 acres or so as of 5:30 p.m. -- it forced the closure of the highway, one of the two main routes between the Bay Area and Lake Tahoe. The highway is closed from just east of Pollock Pines east to Meyers. The most direct detour: Mormon Emigrant Trail, a well-maintained paved route that runs from outside Pollock Pines to Highway 88 near Silver Lake.
About 225 firefighters are on the lines trying to contain the blaze.
El Dorado National Forest officials reported mandatory evacuations have been ordered along a 5-mile stretch of U.S. 50 west of Kyburz, an unincorporated area dotted with campgrounds and summer cabins.
Update, 2:45 p.m. Thursday, July 23: Cal Fire reports that the Wragg Fire, which started Wednesday afternoon just south of Lake Berryessa, continues to grow rapidly. The agency says the blaze has now consumed about 6,900 acres -- nearly 11 square miles.The fire is now reportedly 15 percent contained -- up from 5 percent Thursday morning. A force of 1,300 firefighters, backed up by four air tankers and 10 helicopters, is working to limit the threat to two rural communities.
The most immediate threat, Cal Fire reports, is to 200 structures in an area called Quail Ridge. That's close to the Markley Cove Marina at the southern end of the lake. Residents from Quail Ridge and from Golden Bear Estates -- a community east of the lake -- were ordered to evacuate Wednesday.
The fire has destroyed a barn and a tent trailer and damaged another building.
More information on the fire's location and origin below.
Original post: Thursday, July 23 For the second time in two summers, Cal Fire is battling a major wildland blaze in the rugged country near the southern end of Lake Berryessa.
Last year, it was the 6,500-acre Monticello Fire, sparked by fireworks on the night of the Fourth of July.
This year, it's the Wragg Fire, which Cal Fire says raced through 5,000 acres between about 2:30 p.m. and midnight Wednesday -- nearly a square mile an hour. Early Thursday, the fire was reported 5 percent contained.
Cal Fire says the blaze is threatening about 150 structures and ordered mandatory evacuations of two unincorporated communities at the southern end of the lake: Quail Ridge, near the Markley Cove Resort in Napa County; and Golden Bear Estates, in Yolo County east of the lake and west of the town of Winters.
Two campgrounds in the area were also cleared out, and several hikers were helicoptered out of the Cold Canyon area near Monticello Dam, site of a UC Davis reserve and several popular trails.
An evacuation center has been set up in Winters. With many ranches in the area and livestock in peril -- see the video below -- a separate refuge was also set up north of town.
About 400 firefighters were trying to contend with the blaze, with more being dispatched to join the battle on Thursday. Among the aerial resources committed to the incident on Wednesday was a DC-10 jumbo jet that dropped fire retardant to try to slow the spread of the blaze.
Weather has been a major factor, with erratic winds driving the fire to the east and southeast from its suspected point of origin, a traffic accident at Highway 128 and Wragg Canyon Road. But the winds calmed Wednesday night, and more humid, cool weather is expected to help fire crews Thursday.