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The Mendocino Complex is California's biggest fire ever, but residents know it could have been much worse

Under a smoky haze, Larry Wiedey idled Tuesday in a parking lot outside a makeshift shelter at Mountain Vista Middle School in Lake County, where several fire refugees had set up cots and parked their cars.

He’s been camping there for three nights, displaced by what is now the largest fire on record on California. The Mendocino Complex — made up of the Ranch and River fires — continued to burn on both sides of Clear Lake. By Tuesday night, the complex had consumed more than 292,000 acres in 12 days and was 34% contained. Firefighters took advantage of cooler-than-expected temperatures to strengthen containment lines, slowing fire growth significantly.

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“No matter where you live, there’s always some form of catastrophe,” said Wiedey, who was camping at the shelter with his wife and their three dogs, Thang, Lucky and Mulderoy. “It is what it is.”

A few parking spaces down, Rick Travis was more restless. He said he has made several attempts to skirt past authorities to pick up his van stocked with his necessities: diabetes and allergy medication, food stamps, photos and important papers. He never managed to get through.

In other areas of Lake County Tuesday, residents were allowed to return home as firefighters gained the upper hand on the River fire, which was 78% contained by Tuesday night. They still had a ways to go on the Ranch fire, which was only 20% contained. Flames were still active along its northern flank, pushing toward Snow Mountain Wilderness.

“We’re seeing fire behavior that firefighters have never seen in their careers,” said Steve Kaufman, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “They move faster, they’re more erratic, more unpredictable, we have more wind on our fires.”

In the wilderness, firefighters have to adhere to forest protection rules that could slow down containment. For example, they need permission to use bulldozers and other heavy equipment, said Paul Gibbs, a spokesman for the multi-agency fire response.

Despite its massive size, the Mendocino Complex has been far less destructive than other recent California fires. Less than 100 structures have been lost and no one has been killed. That’s in marked contrast to last fall’s firestorms to the south and west in wine country, which consumed thousands of homes and killed more than 40 people.

Travis said he knows how much worse things could have been in Lake County.

“I know it’s going to be over and I’m glad nobody has been hurt,” he said. “It’s just frustrating.”

President Trump said Tuesday that he was keeping a close eye on the California wildfires, more than a dozen of which have scorched more than 619,000 acres and destroyed more than 2,000 structures across the state. Almost 36,000 residents are still displaced from their homes.

“We’re going to have some meetings about it, because there are reasons and there are things you can do to mitigate what’s happening,” Trump said, offering thoughts and prayers to the families who have lost loved ones and praising firefighters. “I’ve been watching them go into areas where very few people would go. And some of them don’t come out alive. They’re risking their lives … so they can save our lives. My administration will do everything in our power to protect those in harm’s way.”

Resident Arnold Lasker looks over the burned out remains of his girlfriend's house in Spring Valley, near Clearlake Oaks.
Resident Arnold Lasker looks over the burned out remains of his girlfriend's house in Spring Valley, near Clearlake Oaks. (JOSH EDELSON / AFP/Getty Images)

In Redding, firefighters were hoping favorable weather conditions would help them beat back the deadly Carr fire, which has claimed seven lives. The blaze has slowed in recent days, but continues to challenge firefighters with unpredictable wind shifts and spot fires that jump defensive lines, incident commanders said.

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

While 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.

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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 the Cleveland National Forest in Orange County quickly grew to 3,399 acres Monday, and the fire was visible from as far away as 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.

A fire that broke out in the Stanislaus National Forest had burned 11,344 acres as of Tuesday morning. The fire has been burning since Aug. 1, but grew significantly over the weekend.

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.

Firefighters are working desperately to prevent a stubborn finger of 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.”

Reyes-Velarde reported from Ukiah, Tchekmedyian from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Joseph Serna, Ruben Vives, James Queally and Eli Stokols contributed to this report.

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