At least one person has died in the fire, which spans Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties. Video by Ryan Lillis, rlillis@sacbee.com
At least one person has died in the fire, which spans Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties. Video by Ryan Lillis, rlillis@sacbee.com

Fires

Butte, Valley fire crews gain ground as some residents allowed back home

By Tony Bizjak, Bill Lindelof, Dale Kasler, Richard Chang and Ryan Lillis

tbizjak@sacbee.com

September 15, 2015 07:03 AM

UPDATED September 15, 2015 09:48 PM

Backed by an air and land assault, firefighters gained ground against two major Northern California fires Tuesday, and began allowing some evacuated residents back into their neighborhoods. But officials warned the fires that have raged through the Calaveras foothills and swept through Lake County towns remain dangerous and may whip up again as temperatures rise later this week.

Damages from the Valley fire alone, burning in Lake County, are expected to easily top $200 million, the state’s top emergency official said Tuesday.

Teams from the California Office of Emergency Services will be in Calaveras and Amador counties Wednesday to assess damage from the week-old Butte fire. Teams also are being dispatched to Lake County, where the Valley fire has leveled hundreds of homes in small towns and rural tracts since Saturday afternoon.

Mark Ghilarducci, the state emergency services chief, said he’s sending the assessment teams in early, even before the two fires have been quelled, because he wants California to qualify for federal disaster assistance funds as soon as possible.

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“I am pushing it hard; I want the numbers,” he said. “We have all these people sitting in evacuation shelters, we have 15,000 people displaced, maybe 2,900 of them homeless. I don’t want to wait.

“The areas where we can (safely) get into, we will get into.”

Ghilarducci said he expects the Lake County private property and public infrastructure costs to exceed $200 million. That number is based on the expectation that as many as 1,000 homes have been destroyed, and that roads, utility lines, sewer and water facilities also are damaged.

This is definitely a major, major situation.

Nicole Mahrt Ganley, a spokeswoman for the Association of California Insurance Companies

“It’s fair to say that the combined public infrastructure and private losses, we could be at a couple hundred million,” he said. “That’s the low end.”

The state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire, has spent an estimated $29 million so far fighting the Lake and Butte fires, as well a small fire in Shasta County, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said Tuesday. An estimated 75 percent of that cost is being reimbursed by the federal government.

Fire officials in Amador and Calaveras counties reported the first round of good news on Tuesday after a frenetic week. With the Butte fire calmed down and 40 percent contained, officials launched what they call the “repopulation phase,” allowing thousands of evacuees to head back home.

Amador County officials announced just after noon that all evacuations had been lifted in that county. Jaime Moore, a battalion chief from the Los Angeles Fire Department who is serving as a spokesman on the Butte fire, said local law enforcement officials also have given residents the OK to head back into Calaveras County homesteads in the hills around the town of San Andreas.

“This is good; this is good for everybody,” Moore said. “It is going to relieve a lot of people to see what is going on with their homes. You’re going to be surprised how many are going to find that their houses were saved. The fire may have come within feet of their homes.”

Moore said fire officials are giving returning residents marching orders. “We ask people to take a look at their homes, their gas lines, their propane tanks and make sure there is no damage that they need to be aware of.”

751 Tally of homes burned in Valley and Butte fires as of Tuesday

While Tuesday’s return home came as a relief to many, some learned they were not among the lucky.

Bear Dyken lives on an 80-acre property in unincorporated Calaveras County called the Cedar Creek Land Trust, which includes six households, a community garden and orchard. The fire tore through the entire property and nothing is left, Dyken said.

Flames “were eating at our heels” when residents fled last Thursday, he said. “We had to set our horses free. Luckily, they survived.”

Fire officials said they are still investigating the causes of the two fires. Fueled by historically dry conditions amid a four-year drought, the blazes moved swiftly in their first few days, surprising firefighters.

As of Tuesday’s accounting, the Butte fire had blackened 71,660 acres, burned 166 homes and 116 other buildings, such as barns and sheds, and forced thousands of residents to flee. Cal Fire had 18 helicopters and eight airtankers working the Butte fire, and a total of 4,668 firefighters on the scene.

There were no reports of serious injuries or deaths, but that could change as inspection crews comb through damaged and destroyed properties. Some people remain missing, state fire officials say. They have begun sending cadaver dogs into burned buildings to help search for remains of people who may not have escaped.

The Valley fire, centered in Lake County but also touching parts of Napa and Sonoma counties, is slightly smaller in acreage – 67,000 acres – but has done much more physical damage, destroying 585 residences so far.

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said the number of destroyed structures could hit 1,000, which would make the fire the fifth worst, in terms of structure numbers, in state history.

The Valley fire, which is 30 percent contained, also has caused at least one death. A disabled woman in the hilly Anderson Springs area south of Clear Lake was killed when she could not escape after the fire broke out Saturday. Lake County officials are investigating how the death occurred. The woman has been identified in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, via family members and friends, as Barbara McWilliams, 72, a retired teacher who recently moved to the area.

Insurance officials said their claims adjusters are just beginning to assess the damages from the Butte and Valley fires, but said they’re bracing for a substantial figure.

“This is definitely a major, major situation,” said Nicole Mahrt Ganley, a spokeswoman for the Association of California Insurance Companies. “What’s scary is, this is September. ... The most dangerous season in California is October.”

In terms of financial damage, a saving grace is that the fires have struck in areas that aren’t densely populated. The four costliest fires in California history – in the Oakland Hills, San Bernardino and two in greater San Diego – all hit metropolitan areas and consumed more than 8,000 structures combined. The worst was the Oakland Hills fire of October 1991, which caused $2.67 billion worth of damage.

With its hot climate and many rural communities, California is the most susceptible state for calamitous wildfires. Of the 10 most destructive fires in U.S. history, seven have been in California, according to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Lake County officials on Tuesday also began allowing residents back into their homes in a few areas, notably the Clear Lake Riviera, Riviera West and Riviera Heights areas on the south side of Clear Lake. Those subdivisions were evacuated Sunday as a precautionary measure as the fire moved swiftly in that direction.

“The lifting of the mandatory evacuation status is not intended to indicate that the fire is contained, but is being implemented as the threat of fire activity in this area has been reduced,” the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said in an official statement.

For the moment, though, officials at both fires said they are feeling better about prospects for improving containment lines – thanks in part to cooler weather.

“We’re cautiously optimistic we are starting to turn the corner,” Pimlott said Tuesday afternoon. He warned that the fires could re-energize late in the week as air temperatures warm again. “We have a lot more containment to put in place before we are close to feeling comfortable.”

The National Weather Service said rain was expected to fall on parts of the Sacramento Valley late Tuesday and Wednesday, including the areas affected by the fires. However, the rain will be intermittent and the amounts won’t be substantial; much of the precipitation will fall on the North Coast.

Forecaster Eric Kurth said the Valley fire area can expect anywhere between one-tenth and a quarter-inch on Wednesday. “It will be patchy,” he said. A small amount of rain was expected in the area of the Butte fire Tuesday afternoon as well as Wednesday.

The fires have invited some criminal activity. Two suspected looters were arrested Monday night, Lake County sheriff’s officials said during a briefing with law enforcement agencies Tuesday. Sheriff’s officials said there “definitely has been looting” inside the fire zone.

The Valley and Butte fires are just two of a dozen fires that have popped up around the state. The two are considered the highest priority, though. Officials say they are shifting more firefighters to each as other fires wind down.

“We feel we are stretched thin, because we are dealing with so much,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mike Smith.

Pimlott warned that the state’s fire season, already a bad one, could get worse. He noted that the dangerous Santa Ana winds kick up in Southern California in October and November.

“We don’t see an end to fire season for months to come.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

California’s 20 most damaging wildfires

Even without a complete count of structures damaged, the Valley fire ranks No. 9 on the list of most damaging fires by structures burned.

Rank

Fire

Year

County

Acres

Structures*

Deaths

1

Tunnel (Oakland Hills)

1991

Alameda

1,600

2,900

25

2

Cedar

2003

San Diego

273,246

2,820

15

3

Witch

2007

San Diego

197,990

1,650

2

4

Old

2003

San Bernardino

91,281

1,003

6

5

Jones

1999

Shasta

26,200

954

1

6

Paint

1990

Santa Barbara

4,900

641

1

7

Fountain

1992

Shasta

63,960

636

0

8

Sayre

2008

Los Angeles

11,262

604

0

9

Valley

2015

Lake

67,000

585*

1

10

City of Berkeley

1923

Alameda

130

584

0

11

Harris

2007

San Diego

90,440

548

8

12

Bel Air

1961

Los Angeles

6,090

484

0

13

Laguna

1993

Orange

14,437

441

0

14

Laguna

1970

San Diego

175,425

382

5

15

Humboldt

2008

Butte

23,344

351

0

16

Panorama

1980

San Bernardino

23,600

325

4

17

Topanga

1993

Los Angeles

18,000

323

3

18

49er

1988

Nevada

33,700

312

0

19

Angora

2007

El Dorado

3,100

309

0

20

Simi

2003

Ventura

108,204

300

0

*The Valley fire has destroyed 585 homes, in addition to hundreds of other structures. Data for other fires in this column can include other buildings, including commercial properties and outbuildings such as barns, garages and sheds.

Source: Cal Fire