The first explosive fire of the season roared across Northern California on Monday, scorching thousands of acres, razing several homes and forcing hundreds of residents to flee.
Named the Pawnee Fire, the blaze was so destructive that Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency as it continued to carve a path of devastation through Lake County — about 100 miles northwest of Sacramento — not yet contained after two days of burning.
By Monday afternoon, officials said, the inferno had charred more than 8,000 acres of mostly rural and sparsely populated land, destroying at least 22 buildings, threatening an additional 600, and forcing as many as 1,500 residents to scoop up their treasured belongings and seek safer shelter.
Lt. Corey Paulich, a spokesman for the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, said he believed about half of the destroyed structures were homes; the others were sheds, barns, garages and other outbuildings, he said.
The cause of the fire was still under investigation, Cal Fire officials said.
“It’s still very dangerous, as most fires are,” said Scott McLean, a Cal Fire deputy chief. “There is still significant fire activity. Not today, not tomorrow, but in the next few days, we expect to see the fire containment figures start to rise.”
For many Northern Californians, the sight of billowing black smoke and dancing orange flames stirred harrowing memories of last October’s deadly string of wildfires that collectively killed more than 40 people, ripped through more than 7,000 structures and burned hundreds of thousands of acres of California wine country and other nearby land.
Investigators eventually determined that a dozen of the blazes were caused by electric power and distribution lines, conductors and the failure of power poles. The utility Pacific Gas & Electric Company has since reportedly warned investors that it anticipates being held liable for at least $2.5 billion in damages.
Lake County specifically is no stranger to fire danger. In 2016, the Clayton Fire, near Lower Lake, burned nearly 4,000 acres and destroyed about 300 structures. (Investigators eventually arrested a man on suspicion of arson in connection with that fire.) The year before that, in 2015, the Valley Fire tore through Lake, Napa and Sonoma Counties, ravaging about 2,000 structures and killing four people.
Fire officials said that as of Monday, the Pawnee Fire — which began northeast of Clearlake Oaks on Saturday — was being driven by low relative humidity, erratic winds and above-normal temperatures, which were in the mid-80s.
The authorities have issued a mandatory evacuation order for the Spring Valley area, which has a population that numbers in the hundreds. They said a shelter had been established at a local high school and urged residents who stayed behind to cut their water usage so that firefighters have enough to douse the flames.
And although the Pawnee Fire was by far the largest and most alarming blaze, several smaller fires were spreading elsewhere in the state.
The Creek Fire, for example, had scorched about 1,300 acres by Monday in Shasta County — about 200 miles northeast of Lake County — forcing evacuations and closing roads there. The Lane Fire, which is burning between the other two, had consumed 3,000 acres and prompted an evacuation warning.
Mid-June is the beginning of the traditional fire season in California, though officials have long insisted that the season is now year-round.
Chief McLean said that of the more than 250 fires that ignited last week alone in his agency’s jurisdiction, 90 started over the weekend. The combination of high winds, heat and abundance of fuels — like dry brush, foliage and vegetation — that remain scattered throughout the region are likely to blame, he said.
Indeed, much of California’s terrain remains charred from what seems like years of relentless wildfires and perennial drought, which, combined with a bark beetle infestation, have killed more than 100 million trees.
Even though a yearslong drought was declared over last spring, Chief McLean noted dryly: “Last year we had one decent storm. This year we have had a little bit more.”
“We have to have significant storms coming through here on the West Coast for several years to get us where we need to be,” he said.
And while he said it was too soon to forecast what kind of fire year 2018 would be, Chief McLean said Cal Fire had already responded to about 200 more wildfires to date than it did in 2017.
“The fortunate thing, and the unfortunate thing, is we have a population that is experienced,” Lieutenant Paulich of Lake County said. “They’re used to getting the evacuation notices and they know what to do what they get them. They’re aware of the dangers because of the last three years.”