MIKE GENIELLA & MARY CALLAHAN, The Press Democrat, June 29, 2008
A pause in the unrelenting onslaught of wildfires came to the North Coast’s fire country Saturday as thousands of exhausted firefighters and anxious rural residents waited for threats of thunderstorms and lightning strikes to pass.
Chances of storm-related fire danger appeared to be diminishing as weather patterns continued to shift across Northern California. “These are unprecedented fire conditions that we’re experiencing now,” said Tracy Boudreaux, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire.
Nearly 900 Mendocino County homes were still threatened as major fires in the Greenfield, Orr Springs, Rockport and Leggett areas continued to spread.
Of an estimated 130 fires that started last weekend in Mendocino County following severe lightning storms, about 60 had been contained Saturday.
“That’s progress,” said Bill Workman, another Cal Fire spokesman.
But the county’s worst fires were still burning out of control Saturday. Nearly 30,000 acres have gone up in smoke, including valuable stands of commercial timber valued at more than $10 million.
The firefight is costing an estimated $1 million a day, with no end in sight.
Exhausted firefighters, who now number more than 1,000, were instructed Saturday to focus on personal safety and situational awareness as they entered their second week.
While more crews and equipment from other areas continued to arrive, the resources to fight the Mendocino County fires remained stretched.
“We have not had this situation that any of us is aware of in the past, with the number of fires there are in Northern California and the lack of resources,” Boudreaux said.
On Saturday, President Bush issued an emergency declaration for California and ordered federal agencies to assist in firefighting efforts in Butte, Mendocino, Monterey, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta and Trinity counties.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had made the request Friday, saying that wildfires had burned more than 400 square miles.
But California officials said the federal declaration doesn’t go far enough. State and local governments also need federal financing to cover their “extraordinary costs in fighting these fires and helping the thousands of Californians who have suffered unimaginable loss and damages,” said Henry Renteria, director of the state Office of Emergency Services.
More than 17,000 firefighters, nearly 1,500 fire engines and bulldozers, and more than 80 helicopters and aircraft were fighting more than 1,000 active fires Saturday, said state emergency services spokesman Kelly Huston.
The lack of equipment has some county officials irritated, including Supervisor Mike Delbar of Potter Valley.
He acknowledged the benefits of state and federal disaster declarations, and the eventual possibility of financial aid for recovery efforts.
But Delbar ripped into state agencies for refusing to grant regulatory waivers so private equipment operators can join state crews in the fight.
“There was a time when timber companies, ranch owners and others were able to work alongside, but now state safety regulations are so excessive they’re being kept at bay,” Delbar said.
Cal Fire representatives said they expect more personnel and equipment to be diverted to Mendocino County as major fires in other areas are contained.
Lake County’s Walker fire, which burned nearly 15,000 acres, was 90 percent contained by Saturday, according to Cal Fire.
In the Mendocino National Forest, 312 firefighters were still working to contain fires near Lake Pillsbury and in two wilderness areas. Together, about 4,200 acres have burned there.
Battalion Chief Chris Avina, of the state air attack base at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, said Saturday that nine helicopters are now available to fight the Mendocino County fires.
“But they could only work in the morning before we had to ground them because of the smoky conditions over the fires,” he said.
Avina said the copters and fixed-wing aircraft will be sent up at “every window of opportunity.”
Greenfield Ranch residents hailed the firefighting efforts.
Lynn Meadows, a community leader, stayed in her Greenfield home during evacuation hours with firefighters’ permission.
“I adore these guys. How can we ever thank them for leaving their families and homes, and coming here to help us?” she said.