A massive pair of fires burning on either side of Clear Lake, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, exploded to nearly 230,000 acres Saturday night, making the conflagration among the largest on record in California and the most pressing of 17 large wildfires across the state.
The Mendocino Complex fire, now the sixth-largest in recorded state history, has forced thousands of people to evacuate and has burned dozens of homes. Last year’s Thomas fire, which burned 281,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, was California’s largest.
Farther north near Redding, residents began returning Saturday to neighborhoods ravaged by the Carr fire, which has killed six people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes.
Dan Kissick was among those returning. He said the fire had overwhelmed his neighborhood faster than anyone expected on July 26. After more than a week away, Kissick came back to the site of his home on Kellinger Street to find it gone, except for some portions of walls.
The night of the fire, Kissick and his family fled when the air filled with smoke and the sky turned an orange-red. They grabbed a suitcase and some shirts, but hadn’t packed a proper “go-bag” filled with important belongings or supplies, Kissick said.
“I basically only took clothes for two or three days, thinking I’ll be back. That was obviously a misjudgment,” said Kissick, 60. “I knew it was bad, but I didn’t think it was that bad.”
Nearly every home on the block was destroyed except for a two-story one with scorched palm trees in the backyard.
Kissick said he considered himself lucky in the grand scheme of things. He and his family had a relative to stay with the night they fled. The next day, they snagged a rental property nearby before those were all snapped up by the thousands of other evacuees.
“Nobody got hurt, so you’ve got to look at the good,” he said. “I know not everybody was as lucky.”
More than 4,500 firefighters stationed in two Shasta County base camps have battled the 145,000-acre blaze for nearly two weeks, facing triple-digit temperatures, winds up to 30 mph and desert-dry air.
Numerous media reports have blamed the start of the massive blaze on a vehicle towing a trailer with a flat tire, its metal rim creating sparks as it rolled along. In an interview Saturday evening, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials said the cause of the fire remained under investigation.
Gov. Jerry Brown visited the fire command center at the county fairgrounds on Saturday. Increased year-round fire activity was “the new normal” for the state, he said. The governor said he had asked President Trump to issue a major disaster declaration to aid the firefighting and recovery effort.
“He has done it in the past; I am confident he will do it again,” Brown said.
The Carr fire — which has affected communities around Whiskeytown Lake and the Sacramento River — was moving into areas where it will be more difficult to control, fire behavior analyst Don Boursier said. Years of drought have left California’s forests more vulnerable, and so far this year the area around the fire has seen 33 days of 100-degree temperatures, the National Weather Service said.
It hasn’t rained in the Redding or Anderson areas in 71 days.
“The calendar is saying it’s August, the fuel is telling us its September,” Boursier told firefighters during a morning briefing Saturday.
The fire was 41% contained and expected to burn north, deeper into Trinity County forest land around Blue Mountain, officials said.
Two firefighters have been killed battling the blaze, along with four civilians — including a 70-year-old woman who died trying to shield her great-grandchildren, ages 4 and 5, with a wet blanket as her house burned around them.
The forecast for the days ahead includes more intense, dry heat and wind — awful firefighting weather.
The large wildfires burning in the state have scorched over 450,000 acres, displaced around 40,000 residents and are being fought by more than 14,000 firefighters from around the state and country.
Among them is the Ferguson fire near Yosemite National Park, which has burned more than 81,000 acres. Yosemite Valley has been closed since July 25.
Back in Redding, Marilyn and Nick Peters treaded lightly on top of their home’s burnt remains Saturday, occasionally hunching over to sift through a pile of rubble.
Nick, 49, tried to find the silver lining in the situation. They had lost their home, one of at least 1,600 destroyed in a span of a few days last week, but they survived, were insured and managed to save a few mementos.
“I found my ring; it still has all the diamonds,” Marilyn said with a half-smile. Nick reached into a pile of stuff on the driveway and pulled out a round, flat piece of cement with Marilyn’s handprint from when she was 5 years old. “I knew this wouldn’t burn,” he joked.
Nick, who works for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., said he’d returned to the neighborhood with crews a week ago to begin restoring power. “Then, I was numb,” he said. “Today it hit me.”
Serna reported from Redding and Dolan from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Javier Panzar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.