The Rocky fire has become the blaze of perplexing whims, baffling fire officials with a mercurial nature that computer models and simulations could not predict. Sweeping across three counties in Northern California, the fire has plowed through containment lines, hurdled over a highway — even managed to create its own weather system.
"This fire wants to do whatever it wants," Cal Fire spokesman Jason Shanley said. "It's defying all odds. Thirty-year, 40-year veterans have never seen this before."
Perhaps the most frustrating trait of the massive blaze — 67,000 acres, about the size of Sacramento — has been its ability to suck up heat, energy and moisture, then shoot those elements into the air to form a mushroom top of smoke and ash. Every so often, that plume crashes to the ground, either because of its own weight or because of a temperature drop, which sends flames and wind rushing around it in all directions.
One fire behavior expert likened the effect to a child stomping into a puddle — except that instead of water splashing everywhere, it's fire, heat and ash, along with winds that move up to 50 miles per hour.
"That's the killer," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "In some cases, you can't outrun it. It's like an explosion."
Patzert pointed out that high-pressure systems carrying hot, muggy weather and pushing winds north along the coast are colliding with a low-pressure system, resulting in higher winds. He also said that while the drought-parched region isn't likely to have an effect on the amount of fires, dry conditions will add to their intensity.
"Once they start up, they burn hotter. They're less controllable," he said.
Breaking out Wednesday near Clear Lake in a rugged region north of Napa, the Rocky fire scorched 8,000 acres by the following afternoon. Computer models estimated it would take seven days for it to double in size. But on Saturday it exploded across 20,000 acres in just five hours. Fire retardant, break lines and backfires could not contain its flames.
Two days later, crews hoped a lull in the summer heat would help them gain ground — until the blaze jumped California 20, a ribbon of asphalt firefighters had hoped would halt its path.
The largest of the 22 fires being battled across the state, the Rocky fire stretches across Colusa, Lake and Yolo counties and has consumed 50 structures, including 24 homes. By Tuesday, it was 20% contained as it was fought by nearly 3,500 firefighters.
The rash of fires prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency last week, and on Tuesday, the White House issued a statement that said President Barack Obama had requested that his team stay in touch with local officials as fire efforts continued. Federal and local officials were investigating the death of U.S. Forest Service Fire Capt. David Ruhl, 38, who died while fighting a fire in Modoc County.
No deaths have been reported in the Rocky fire, but its vast range has displaced thousands of residents, some of whom have been forced to pitch tents in parking lots or hop around to available hotels.
"We're running out of money really fast," said Antoinette Oliver, 37, who evacuated her Spring Valley home along with her mother-in-law and 8-year-old son. "You're not really prepared for situations like this."
Her husband, Brian Hultman, had stayed behind with their two dogs and witnessed flames close enough to rain ash on their property. "It looked apocalyptic," Hultman, 29, said. "It was just thick black as far as you could see."
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but thousands of lightning strikes have ignited wildfires since last week, fire officials said.
Weather patterns carrying monsoonal moisture and thunderstorms add a level of unpredictability to the winds that help drive fires. Thunderstorms hovering over fires, in fact, create the same cloud effect that the Rocky fire has already been generating, said John Wood, a U.S. Forest Service fire behavior analyst.
Unfortunately, the Rocky fire gives fire officials a preview of what could be expected in a water-starved region during the heart of fire season.
That's a frightening future for fire crews who watched the Rocky fire produce its own fast-moving wind that not only breathed new life into its own blaze but sent embers flying miles around to spark new flames.
"It's misbehaving so much," Shanley said. "It's just almost, I want to say obnoxious — that's not even the correct word for it. It's unbelievable."
Megerian reported from Sacramento, Serna and Knoll from Los Angeles
Times Staff Writer Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.