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Firefighters gain ground on record-breaking Mendocino Complex fire as battles against statewide blazes continue

Firefighters in Northern California were beginning to gain ground Tuesday against a record-breaking wildfire in Lake County, as firefighters across the state continued battling 18 blazes that have scorched more than 619,000 acres.

The Mendocino Complex fire, which became the largest wildfire in California history Monday night, had burned more than 292,000 acres as of Tuesday evening, officials said. The sprawling blaze, which is a combination of the Ranch and River fires in Lake County, has frustrated firefighters as it continues to leap natural and man-made barriers.

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The Thomas fire, which scorched 281,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last year, had been the largest wildfire in state history before Monday night — a dubious distinction it held for just eight months.

(Jon Schleuss / Los Angeles Times)

Prolonged drought and extreme heat have made California ripe for dangerous fires in recent months and years. Of the five largest wildfires in state history, four have occurred since 2012.

The relentless blazes have taken a toll on the men and women working the fire lines. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Steve Kaufman, who was at the scene of the Mendocino Complex fire Tuesday morning, was also on the ground for the Thomas fire.

“It’s surreal. It’s exhausting,” he said. “A lot of firefighters are going on 30-plus days fighting fires without going home.”

The fire was only 34% contained as of Tuesday evening. Fire officials focused on protecting Lucerne and surrounding communities along Clear Lake where homes are in danger. Although the area is under mandatory evacuation, some residents haven’t left yet.

“It’s definitely a challenge because residents who live in these communities have been affected every year,” Kaufman said, referring to fires that have plagued the area since 2015. “You can tell it takes its toll on residents.”

Farther north in Redding, firefighters were hoping favorable weather conditions Tuesday and Wednesday would help them beat back the deadly Carr fire, which has claimed seven lives.

The blaze has slowed in the last 48 hours but continues to challenge firefighters with unpredictable wind shifts and spot fires that jump defensive lines, incident commanders said at a briefing Tuesday morning.

The Carr fire has so far scorched 172,055 acres since a vehicle malfunction sparked it July 23 on Highway 299 near Whiskeytown Lake. More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed in the fire, which was at 47% containment Tuesday evening.

Although firefighters have gained ground, the fire’s push to the southwest has some officials concerned. Winds could still blow embers that might reignite brush and other fuel sources, and the northern portion of the blaze has continued to burn in rugged terrain where firefighters cannot attack the flames directly.

A high-pressure system has kept Redding broiling in the triple-digits in recent days, but it is also keeping a lid on the fire by trapping the smoke in the Sacramento Valley, meteorologists said. The stew of heat and low air quality might be unhealthy for residents and firefighters, but the conditions are also keeping the flames at bay, officials said.

Even as firefighters are making progress on one end of the state, problems continue to spring up in Central and Southern California. A sudden ignition in Cleveland National Forest in Orange County quickly grew to 3,399 acres Monday, and the fire was visible from as far away as Santa Catalina Island, producing a towering plume of thick smoke. Authorities had initially estimated the Holy fire’s size to be 4,000 acres. By Tuesday night, it was 5% contained. Authorities ordered evacuations in Holy Jim Canyon, a Trabuco Canyon residence tract, and Blue Jay and Falcon campgrounds.

A fire that broke out in Stanislaus National Forest had grown to 13,000 acres as of Monday night and destroyed 235 structures, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The fire has been burning since Aug. 1 but grew significantly over the weekend.

Kaufman said his fellow firefighters have grown increasingly concerned about the abnormal behavior of the recent fires.

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“We’re seeing fire behavior that firefighters have never seen in their careers,” Kaufman said. “They move faster, they’re more erratic, more unpredictable, we have more wind on our fires. And I don’t remember in my career having this many civilian fatalities. Those things are alarming to us.”

Meanwhile, near Yosemite National Park, weather conditions over the last few days have helped firefighters increase containment of the Ferguson fire, which has been burning for 26 days and caused the indefinite closure of Yosemite Valley.

As of Tuesday, the deadly wildfire had scorched 94,992 acres and was 43% contained.

“The last couple of days have been good for us,” Incident Commander Mark Von Tillow told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

Firefighters are working desperately to prevent the fire from moving northeast and into Yosemite National Park, where it can burn through dead trees and dry vegetation, essentially extending the life of the fire and producing a new set of problems for fire officials.

“It’s a critical piece,” said Kelly Martin, chief of fire and aviation management at Yosemite National Park. “There’s potential for long-term impact.”

The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said more than 200 homes remain under mandatory evacuation orders in Yosemite West and about 50 in Foresta.

Reyes-Velarde reported from Ukiah. Serna reported from Redding. Queally and Vives reported from Los Angeles.

9:25 p.m.: This post was updated with new fire figures.

1:40 p.m.: This post was updated with details on the Ferguson fire.

This article was originally published at 10:20 a.m.

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