After more than three weeks, firefighters Monday continued to struggle against the largest fire in modern California history as the Mendocino Complex blaze prompted more evacuations and posed new dangers to those on the front lines.
While battling the fire, five members of Los Angeles Fire Department Strike Team 1880C were injured Sunday. All five suffered minor injuries and were treated and released from area hospitals.
Many of the nearly 3,500 firefighters on the lines aren’t familiar with the steep terrain in the area, which has made battling the blaze more difficult and dangerous, said Capt. Cary Wright, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The dense timber and brush provide continuous fuel for flames and make it arduous for firefighters to access the area safely.
“Trees burn and then fall, so it’s dangerous to get ground resources in there,” he said. The dense brush also makes water and retardant drops by plane less effective.
Crews are on especially high alert after Matthew Burchett, a firefighter who traveled from Draper City, Utah, to help battle the blaze, died last week.
A Cal Fire report released Monday said Burchett was struck by falling tree debris during a retardant drop. The report called on the agency to make sure firefighters were clear of areas with overhead hazards during drops.
“The message at this morning’s briefing was to make sure all the crews have lookouts and are keeping their head on a swivel,” Wright said.
Officials issued a mandatory evacuation order Sunday night for areas west of County Road 306 to the Lake County line, including the Mendocino National Forest area from the Colusa County line to County Road 308. Portions of Lake, Mendocino and Colusa counties remain under mandatory evacuation, according to Cal Fire.
The Ranch and River fires, which make up the Complex fire, had burned 398,862 acres as of Monday morning. Firefighters treat the Ranch and River fires as one event, even though the two fires never merged.
The River fire is fully contained, but steep, inaccessible terrain, erratic winds and low humidity have made the Ranch blaze difficult to control, Wright said.
The Ranch fire is 74% contained, Cal Fire officials said Monday.
Wright said the fire continued to chew through dry brush even as humidity increased overnight, when firefighters typically gain traction battling wildfires.
Fire officials geared up for a tough fight on Monday, when humidity was expected to drop further and temperatures were predicted to climb.
“The fire activity has been unpredictable,” Wright said. “We have to get through the next 24 hours. It’s going to be pretty dangerous conditions.”
Firefighters hope to gain momentum later in the week as cooler temperatures roll into the area.
The Mendocino blaze has destroyed 157 homes since it broke out nearly a month ago.
Years of drought have created ripe conditions for large-scale wildfires that spread rapidly. Of the five largest wildfires in state history, four have occurred since 2012.
The Front fire, which broke out on Sunday in the Los Padres National Forest in the Santa Maria area, has burned 1,000 acres and was 10% contained as of Monday.
The blaze, which brought 700 firefighters to the area, forced the closure of Highway 166 between Santa Maria and Cuyama in both directions on Monday, according to Santa Barbara County officials.
In Redding, the Carr fire has claimed eight lives and more than 1,000 homes as it grew to 229,651 acres as of Monday morning. The fire is 88% contained.
The Holy fire, which has charred 22,887 acres in Riverside and Orange counties is 92% contained as of Monday, according to Cal Fire officials.