Rocky Fire Notebook: Flames, Evacuations and a Woman Who Wouldn't Flee
So on Tuesday, with the Rocky Fire having convinced me and many others it was a story, I drove up from the Bay Area to Lake County, where the blaze had been running just about anywhere it wanted for the better part of a week.
Having pored over every picture, map and Cal Fire document I could find, I was imagining a scene that I've encountered once or twice before: massive pyrocumulus clouds rising above fiercely burning slopes, choking smoke, towns full of people ready to flee.
I headed up the Napa Valley, then over Mount St. Helena on Highway 29, ready for my first view of the conflagration. What I found instead as I headed north through Lake County toward the fire lines was a cool, mostly overcast day.
After stopping at an American Red Cross evacuation center at Middletown High School -- there appeared to be about half a dozen evacuees of the legions reported by national media to have left their homes as the fire advanced -- I headed to Cal Fire's base at the county fairgrounds in Lakeport. Looking across Clear Lake, there was still no sign of smoke or fire or alarm.
Rain started to spit down the last 15 minutes or so of the drive, but barely enough to moisten the pavement. When I got to the big Cal Fire public information trailer at the fairgrounds, San Diego Fire Department Capt. Jason Shanley, serving as a public information officer for the Rocky Fire, came outside to be interviewed.
But Shanley wasn't going to get carried away with the turn in the weather. "It's kind of raining right now, but it's kind of irrelevant as big as this fire is right now," he said. "It would be like spitting on a barbecue."
A little while later, I ran into Jeff Ohs, a Long Beach Fire Department battalion chief, in a shopping center parking lot in the town of Lower Lake. Tuesday, he was in charge of Branch 1 of the massive firefighting organization set up to fight the Rocky Fire. The several hundred firefighters assigned to Branch 1 have been given the job of building and holding the fire lines and have stopped the blaze from sweeping into Lower Lake and nearby Clearlake.
Ohs saw the weather a little differently from his counterpart back at base camp.
"Today's obviously, just by looking out on the horizon, a very different picture a very, very different picture from what we've seen the last few days," Ohs said. "That gives us the ability to be in more of a proactive stance than a reactive stance. So 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."
Of course, Ohs added a couple of "buts": With the fire largely uncontained and with such a large area being burned -- more than double the area of San Francisco -- a return of hot, clear, windy weather could well breathe new life into the inferno.
Later, after I had checked into a Clearlake motel that claims to be "America's best value," I checked out the surroundings. I walked out onto the inn's rickety dock to gaze at Mount Konocti, the striking eminence across the lake. The sight was almost ridiculously pretty in a picture-postcard way: the mountain silhouetted by the sunset, clouds holding the last light, the lake's surface shimmering in the dusk.
Many media reports on the Rocky Fire include some variation on this statistic: The blaze has forced 13,000 people to evacuate their homes; or alternately, 13,000 people have been ordered to leave their homes. Cal Fire is the source of the number, reporting on Monday, "In total, all evacuations impact over 13,118 citizens living in over 5,530 residences."
It's an alarming claim to hear -- it would represent about 20 percent of the entire Lake County population. But it turns out it's not true.
Lake County Sheriff's Lt. Steve Brooks was at the Cal Fire base Tuesday, and I asked him -- since sheriff's offices in rural counties usually implement the evacuation orders -- if he could give me a breakdown: How many people had left home under mandatory evacuation orders? And how many people had been advised they should be prepared to leave if mandatory orders were issued?
"As far as the mandatory evacuation goes, about 1,500 people have been told to evacuate," Brooks said. The larger number, 13,000, adds in all those who have been alerted that they may need to evacuate.
What's life like in an area under an evacuation advisory?
When I met up with Jeff Ohs on Tuesday evening, he was at a busy shopping center in a neighborhood under an advisory. As we talked, there was no sign in the life around us that anything was different from the normal dinner hour.
I mentioned to Jeff Ohs, the fire battalion chief, that residents here had been advised an evacuation might be necessary. Here's how he characterized what that means:
"Under an advisory -- yeah. And what the advisory is, it's basically giving you the information that, hey, the fire is close by and it's definitely not contained or controlled and you should have your stuff packed and ready to go just in case."
Speaking of mandatory evacuations, the most engaging scene I've come across is in the parking lot/campground of the Moose Lodge 2284 in Clearlake Oaks.
The lodge started serving meals and providing camping space to nearby residents the night the fire started, July 29.
"We were feeding over a hundred for lunch by Saturday," said Jim Brisco, an officer for Lodge 2284. "And it's been growing, because they don't want to drive to Middletown," site of an official American Red Cross evacuation center. "That's too far from their property."
Most of those camping outside the Moose Lodge are from Spring Valley, a rural community near the northern edge of the fire. Most were forced out Sunday night as the fire marched toward their homes; some arrived earlier, some later.
James Logan and his wife Lisa moved into the campground on Saturday night, and he's almost defiantly proud that the evacuation center is flourishing without official help.
"The Moose Lodge opened up and opened their hearts up, and the community around here has come together to help us out," Logan said. "We have no government help. They won't help us for nothing because they don't classify this as a sanctioned evacuation. But as a community we're standing firm and doing good."
Brisco said the impromptu evacuation center has gotten an amazing volume of help from surrounding towns. So much food and supplies have appeared at the lodge that the group doesn't have room for it all. The real concern about the operation, he said, is whether the lodge can keep it up if evacuation orders remain in place into next week.
Wednesday morning, I drove Highway 20, which is the northern edge of most of the fire area. There were numerous crews along the road tending to hot spots. Cal Fire engines staged along the side of the highway, with crews waiting for the day's orders. PG&E trucks also lined up, waiting to get into the back country and repair downed lines and replace burned poles. Some smoke was visible in the miles of burned countryside, but no fire.
I stopped at The Oasis, a roadside stop on a lonely stretch of road, to see if it was open. It wasn't -- the power was still out. But the owner, Sara Douglass, was sitting on the porch. She said she didn't really have anything to say, then added that The Oasis is the descendant of a pre-Gold Rush-era stage stop -- it burned down once, about a century ago -- and that she's owned the property for almost 20 years.
The fire had burned down to the very edge of the road opposite her place -- a low wooden-frame building with a metal roof. She had stayed at the property, she said, as crews fought to keep the blaze from crossing the highway.
What did it look like?
"Hell. Just hell. Hot and hell. Scary," she said. "And then the wind picks up and you get mini-tornadoes and it's all flame."
She thought about leaving, she said, "but I've got big dogs and a wild pig and no way out. ... One little truck won't get them out of here. So it was buckle down and make sure my perimeter was right, which we've been working on constantly, and thank god for metal roofs."
But she said she's seen fires here before and that the land around her has had a way of repairing itself.
"The fire will be good," she said. "We'll get a lot of redbud, and our wildflowers and pine will come back. So even though it's disastrous, Mother Nature will come back … and be prettier than she was."
And as far as the Rocky Fire of 2015 goes, she said, it ain't over.
"This thing could still turn around and bite us," Douglass said. "It's not done. We had a lull in the weather, and it helped the firefighters, but they're not done. Any part of this could flare up. The wind could take it and we could be in double hell again."