By Mike Geniella
Santa Rosa Press Democrat
June 26, 2008

Scores of wildfires raced through tinder-dry Mendocino and Lake counties for a fifth day Wednesday, extending across 38,000 acres, prompting new evacuation alerts and raising fears among rural residents that the worst may be ahead.

Crews made little progress controlling the blazes, reporting 5 percent containment at nightfall. That was the same level that had been reported in the morning.

Efforts were hampered by the grounding of four state air tankers because of heavy smoke in the fire zone and at refueling stations in Ukiah and north of Santa Rosa. Tankers and their loads of flame retardant are typically key to firefighting efforts.

The aircraft could be airborne today if smoke conditions improve, state officials said.

Weather forecasts calling for a series of possible lightning strikes and thunderstorms sparked new concerns across the fire-weary region.

"We don't need that," said Mendocino County Administrator Tom Mitchell.

Similar storms last weekend triggered 6,500 strikes in a 24-hour period, igniting at least 800 fires across Northern California. About 130 of the fires erupted in Mendocino County.

Even as the ranks of firefighters on the ground in Mendocino and Lake counties swelled Wednesday to nearly 1,500, people in fire-threatened areas were feeling increasingly edgy.

"We're very concerned," said Lynn Meadows, a longtime resident of the Greenfield Ranch.

Meadows and nearly 200 other homeowners at Greenfield, a sprawling rural community eight miles northwest of Ukiah, were the latest county residents to be alerted at about 4 p.m. Wednesday that they also may have to quickly evacuate.

Already given evacuation warnings were hundreds of rural residents living near Leggett, Covelo, Navarro, Point Arena and Bell Springs.

Mendocino Sheriff Tom Allman said city and county law enforcement agencies have formed special teams to assist in evacuations if necessary.

"We want people to know we're prepared, and we'll be there for them if necessary," Allman said.

Evacuation centers are open at Willits High School and Point Arena High School on the Mendocino Coast.

For the first time in 46 years, the Black Bart parade in Redwood Valley scheduled for this weekend has been canceled because of air-quality concerns.

Flames also were threatening Montgomery Woods State Reserve, where some of the world's tallest trees grow. The reserve's three groves of ancient redwoods are 13 miles west of Ukiah, just beyond historic Orr Hot Springs resort.

The single largest fire is burning out of control in a ruggedly remote region of northeast Lake County, where 14,500 acres have been burned. The so-called Walker Fire could grow as large as 35,000 acres, state fire officials warned Wednesday.

State fire crews focused their efforts Wednesday on Mendocino County, where more wildfires are burning than anywhere in the state.

The state and a small army of local fire department volunteers are struggling to hold lines and keep flames from homes, outbuildings and community centers tucked into thickly wooded pockets.

So far, more than 20,000 acres have burned in Mendocino County with at least 40 wildfires still untended. Private crews of firefighters hired by Mendocino Redwood Co. arrived Wednesday to battle 31 fires burning across 228,000 acres of company timberland along the Mendocino-Sonoma coastline.

Prospects of another series of lightning and thunderstorms this weekend were not welcomed Wednesday.

"We're very concerned," said county administrator Mitchell. He also said that the fact that there has been "no major blowout" is a plus.

"At this point, that's good news," said Mitchell.

Heavy smoke billowing from the fires is creating serious health concerns, with three straight days of air-quality alerts being issued by local authorities.

Smoky skies are expected to linger over the next several days, with the worst concentrations of foul air in southern Mendocino and northern Sonoma counties.

"Very unhealthy" levels have been recorded in the Ukiah, Hopland and Anderson valleys, although there were some signs of improving conditions late Wednesday.