By Mike Geniella
Santa Rosa Press Democrat
June 25, 2008

An unprecedented onslaught of flames continued Tuesday to scour bone-dry wildlands of Mendocino County, forcing state fire commanders to make cold, hard decisions about which of the 106 fires to fight and which to ignore.

It was a scene being repeated across Northern California as overmatched fire crews were confronted for a second day by more than 800 lightning-caused blazes.

At the state command post in Ukiah, the decisions were straightforward: Attack the fires that threaten people and homes, worry about the others in the coming days -- or weeks.

As a result, some desperate Mendocino County property owners Tuesday turned to hiring private firefighting crews and leasing helicopters to help fight fires on their own land.

"We understand the state's problems, but we can't wait for our lands to make their way up the priority list," said Mike Jani, chief forester for Mendocino Redwood Co. of Ukiah.

Jani said 31 lightning-caused fires are flaring across a 228,000-acre strip of company timberlands running along the rugged Mendocino-Sonoma coastline.

Jani said company crews and state firefighters are coordinating firefighting efforts, but more personnel and equipment are needed.

"We have two 20-man private crews arriving from Montana, and we may bring in more," Jani said.

The company has rented a private firefighting helicopter to dump ocean water on a fire near Rockport on the north Mendocino Coast.

On Tuesday, Mendocino County remained the hardest hit in Northern California. Though the number of fires decreased to 106 from the 131 reported Monday, the blackened acreage reached 19,000 -- about 30 square miles. And 46 fires -- almost all in remote areas -- remained unattended.

For now, the fast-changing events are pushing aside a contentious public debate over whether such fires should be allowed to burn themselves out and whether longtime state fire-suppression policies can ever end in victory over catastrophic wildfires.

Critics say no, not as long as state, county and city officials continue to allow urban intrusion into dangerous fire zones where wildlands and housing meet.

As it is, an estimated 60 percent of Mendocino County's 90,000 residents live in homes and small communities scattered throughout wildland areas, from Piercy to Potter Valley, from Branscomb to Brooktrails.

But racing flames and a second day of foul air quality left no time Tuesday for any debate over firefighting tactics.

"We are aggressively attacking the fires. We don't have time or energy for anything else," said Cal Fire spokeswoman Tracy Boudreaux.

Current firefighting priorities were clear as state efforts unfolded Tuesday to fight major fires in Lake and Mendocino counties.

About 130 firefighters battled the fast-moving Walker fire, which has burned 9,000 acres in a remote section of northeastern Lake County.

In contrast, nearly 700 firefighters were attacking dozens of Mendocino County fires in areas where small communities, homes, and ranching and timber equipment are threatened.

State fire officials Tuesday described the current wildfire situation as "dire."

Cal Fire set up a special command center at the Redwood Empire Fairgrounds in Ukiah and brought in a veteran state firefighter to oversee a 40-member technical crew to plot the Mendocino County wildfire strategy.

Commander Joe Waterman, speaking to the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, praised local volunteer fire departments and Sheriff Tom Allman and deputies for their efforts since the first fires broke out during weekend thunderstorms.

"These people have been in the trenches since day one. If not for them, this crisis would be far greater," Waterman said.

Waterman warned county officials that it could take "weeks" to gain control over the region's wildland fires.

The same prognosis was made by local air quality and health officials, who warned Tuesday that unhealthy air could linger for days and even weeks over Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties. Some concerned bicycle riders and pedestrians were observed Tuesday wearing face masks in Ukiah.