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Mendocino Complex Wildfire Becomes Biggest in California History

Thousands of firefighters battle blaze as it destroys homes and forces evacuations

By Scott Bransford

Plumes of smoke towered over flame-engulfed mountains in northern California on Monday evening as thousands of firefighters grappled with the largest wildfire in state history.

At a community hall in a small farming community 121 miles north-east of San Francisco, Renato Lira, an American Red Cross disaster services worker, looked through photos on his phone of the fire he had just driven through to set up an evacuation center. As he flicked, his screen turned red.

 photo of Mendocino complex firePhoto by Bob SchoenherrThe Mendocino Complex fire is currently burning across 443 square miles, engulfing homes filling the air with smoke.

“It’s not stopping,” Lira said of the blaze. “People thought this year was going to be a break.”

At 443.4 square miles and growing, the blaze is already larger than New York and approaching the size of Los Angeles. The fire surpassed this size of the Thomas Fire, which broke out in 2017.

The 3,900 crews battling the Mendocino Complex on Monday were focusing on keeping flames from breaking through fire lines on a ridge above the foothill communities of Nice, Lucerne, Glen Haven, and Clearlake Oaks, said Tricia Austin, a spokesperson for Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency.

As of Monday afternoon, the Mendocino Complex fire had destroyed a total of 87 residences and 82 other structures, and forced thousands to evacuate. News agencies have reported seven deaths so far in blazes across California.

The images on Lira’s phone are a testament to the forbidding atmosphere in a region that has seen repeated blazes over the past four years, threatening the local economy and leading residents to question fire prevention strategies.

Blazes throughout the state have disrupted summer routines, with much of Yosemite national park closed due to fire activity. Air quality around the park is poor amid thick smoke and falling ash.

About 14,000 firefighters, including inmate volunteers, are battling 18 major blazes burning thousands of square miles. Firefighting costs have more than tripled from $242 million in the 2013 fiscal year to $773 million in the 2018 fiscal year that ended on June 30, according to Cal Fire.

The fire conditions have drawn unusual commentary from Donald Trump, who tweeted that the blazes had been caused by policies that require the state’s water managers to divert water from reservoirs into rivers and streams. Among other things, the policies are meant to protect struggling fish species and prevent salinity in waterways.

“Governor Jerry Brown must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean,” Trump tweeted on Monday.

A California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman declined to comment on Trump’s tweet but said crews did not lack water to fight the flames.

The water diversion policies have long been a target of conservative farmers in the region, who argue that water should be stored for their use rather than flowing out to sea.

Austin said the Mendocino fire was eating through the region’s diverse topography, where remote homes and small towns are interspersed through an arid region of pines, oak woodlands, and parched grass pastures.

“All the fuels are receptive and the fire is being pushed erratically,” Austin said. “They’re dry and it’s hot and we’ve got low humidities.”

Temperatures could reach 110F (43C) in northern California over the next few days with gusty winds fanning the flames of the complex, a National Weather Service meteorologist said.

At the evacuation center in Colusa, the Red Cross worker Dene Shaver said the repeated cycles of fire, home destruction, and evacuation had begun to take a psychological toll on residents and caused them to question the future of living in this region, which has been a haven for retirees and others priced out of the Bay Area.

“The California people are sort of over it,” Shaver said. “They want to know why this keeps happening.”

The frequent fires through this region, which have seen less national media attention than those that have burned-through communities such as Redding and Santa Rosa, have hampered the local economy, with businesses struggling to stay staffed while employees endure repeated evacuations.

“It’s extremely challenging financially,” said Melissa Fulton, CEO of the Lake County Chamber of Commerce. “Our county is suffering quite a bit because of the revenue in tourism and property tax.”

A Cal Fire spokesman, Marco De Anza, said the fire highlighted the need for a more comprehensive fire strategy, which could help communities in northern California stay safe in a time of prolonged drought and hotter days.

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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