Lightning Strikes Anderson Valley (Sep. 10, 2003)

Wednesday morning’s freak storm system sparked dozens of lightning-fires in Mendocino County and in many other places on the Northcoast. About a dozen fires blew into life in Anderson Valley. 

“It’s a lightening siege,” was the description of the fast-moving storm by Captain Gabrielle Avina of the California Department of Forestry’s command headquarters in St. Helena.

60 fires were reported in Mendocino County alone, most of them averaging a half-acre. Some 400 firefighters, 47 fire engines, 17 ground crews, six helicopters, six fixed-winged air tankers, and nine bulldozers were mobilized to fight the far-flung blazes.

Local fires flared up in the Yorkville area early Wednesday morning along Rancheria Creek, Hibbard Road, and the Burger Ranch. Soon, more fires were reported near Navarro. 

As fires were called in from both ends of the valley, a four-acre blaze off Mountain House Road received a helicopter water drop to keep it from getting worse. Local crews were quickly stretched thin as more and more fires were reported. Overtaxed firefighters went into triage mode, giving priority to fires that seemed most likely to threaten property.  

Most of the fires were in hard-to-reach areas where only four-wheel drive trucks could reach them. Just as the Yorkville area fires were contained, including a multi-acre fire  on the Lawson Ranch which was soon contained, spot fires were called in from the Boonville and Philo areas. 

Fortunately, there was little wind, and the rain accompanying the lightning helped slow the spread of most of the fires. But later in the week, as the warm weather returned, telltale smoke from new spot fires appeared.

On Wednesday, with small fires burning in many areas of the valley, calls for help went out to crews from neighboring counties. Inmate crews were at work in Anderson Valley beginning Wednesday night. Units from as far away as Marin County were called in to help beat back the numerous blazes in every area of the county. Spotter planes and experienced lookouts, including Ray Langevin of Boonville, were summoned to work to help keep track of the numerous conflagrations. Langevin was dispatched to Cold Springs Lookout atop Greenwood Ridge where he’d worked in fire seasons past.

Mendocino Redwood Company ground crews were also put to work in the Navarro area; their heavy equipment was invaluable in cutting firebreaks and smothering advancing flame. 

Many local residents heard frantic calls on their scanners from a Navarro-area fire described as the “Mouse Ridge fire — the steep north slopes between Greenwood Ridge and the Navarro River — that panicked local firefighters briefly feared had trapped them. They emerged unscathed from their emergency.

Large fires continue to burn in Mendocino National Forest. 

Recent Forest Service budget cuts eliminated six federal air tankers, putting more of the burden for fighting fires in this area on the Ukiah-based air tankers and helicopters of the California Department of Forestry.

By Friday Anderson Valley’s volunteer crews were finally able to mop up and take a break.

“This was the worst concentration of fires in my experience,” declared Anderson Valley Fire Chief Colin Wilson. “We’ve had lightning-started fires before, but they usually came with more rain and weren’t as big a threat.”

Firefighters remained on high alert. 

“Sleeper fires are a strong possibility,” added Wilson. “We couldn’t always do full mop up because we had to move quickly to other fires. We’re still finishing up; fires continue to flare. And burning roots could hit the surface and be fanned into flame by winds or high temperatures.”

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