Inside the Mendocino Complex Fire Evacuation Zone

A chimney is all that is recognizable of a Spring Valley home that burned in the Ranch Fire.

CLEARLAKE OAKS, Calif. — The largest wildfire in California’s history is actually two fires — the River Fire and the Ranch Fire — cutting across vast areas of wilderness in three counties of Northern California. Together they are called the Mendocino Complex fire, and have scorched more than 300,000 acres. So far, though, relatively few homes have burned down, and no one has died. The surrounding region is a mosaic of lush vineyards, rustic lake communities and a Hot Springs that once catered to famous customers (it advertises itself as “Jack London’s favorite hot spot.”)

In between the fires is Clear Lake, and hugging the north side of the lake is Highway 20, its pavement smeared red in places with fire retardant dropped from planes. The highway connects a string of lakeside communities where residents were ordered to evacuate because of worries that winds could shift quickly and drive the fire to edge of the lake.

On Wednesday morning, we drove roughly 50 miles along Highway 20, from the firefighters’ base camp in Ukiah to the town of Clearlake Oaks, while the region was still under a mandatory evacuation order.

In California, mandatory evacuations are, in effect, not mandatory. Law enforcement agencies do not force residents to leave, and along the lake, many stayed as the fire raged, to defend their homes.

The Hi-Way Grocery has been in Pat Lynch’s family since 1962, and across those years the store has been closed only twice each year, for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“We’re not at the holidays yet,” said Mr. Lynch, 64, sitting near the cash register in his apron.

So he stayed. And business has been good, selling necessities to the firefighters and other emergency workers: chewing tobacco, toothbrushes, energy drinks and “a lot of deli sandwiches.”

“They get tired of those fireline lunches,” he said.

Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Upper Lake — founded in 1854, a red archway in town announces — lies just beyond the checkpoint to the evacuation zone, which is managed by the National Guard and the Highway Patrol. Upper Lake was settled by two Anglo-Americans who had helped lead a revolt against Mexican rule in nearby Sonoma, a nugget of history written on the back of the postcards Mr. Lynch has stacked on the front counter. Upper Lake’s main street is a line of Old West-style storefronts, and with the evacuation of most residents, the place had the feel of a ghost town.

Mr. Lynch described the area as economically depressed, and a place where people like to be left alone by the government. And even amid a devastating fire season and news reports about rising temperatures, there is plenty of skepticism over climate change.

“Millions of years ago, I’m sure they had fires that raged and raged for months — it just so happens that we are in one of those cycles,” Mr. Lynch said.

Other residents have stayed behind because they are worried about looters, concerned that they would return to find “their back doors kicked in,” he said.

As he spoke, one of his regulars, Steve Lugger, came in to buy cat litter.

“I’m the last living one in my family, and I just wanted to live in my house,” said Mr. Lugger, 68. “And I have 12 cats to take care of.”

On a normal day, you can see clear across the lake, where almost every weekend there is a bass fishing tournament. But the fires have brought a thick haze of smoke.

The names of some of the places evoke Europe — there is Nice, and then Lucerne, where a sign welcomes visitors to “the Switzerland of America.”

As the fires raged to the north, threatening the lakeside communities, some residents stayed and armed themselves with garden hoses to protect their homes, which frustrates firefighters and police officers.

“They just don’t want to lose their houses,” said Leah Robbins, a captain at the fire station in Lucerne, where the firefighters, who have recently switched to shifts of 24 hours on and 24 hours off, were working on their equipment before going back out in the field.

The problem, she said, is that “if they are watering down their houses, then water levels for fire hydrants get low.”

There are many horse ranches in the area, and some residents fled without their animals. One woman spray-painted her cellphone number on the sides of her two horses, opened the gates to turn them loose, and then evacuated.

Spread across almost every inch of Steve Bauer’s lawn is the bric-a-brac of an ambitious yard sale: old books, kitchen utensils, a candy dispenser, camping items and used clothing. Just as the evacuation order came down, Mr. Bauer and his wife were organizing the sale, to raise spending money for a cruise to Mexico that they have planned for later this month.

“We’ve just been sheltering here in place,” he said. “We ran out of food. We ran out of dog food.”

He had a simple reason to stay. “I have a Great Dane and another dog. They don’t get along. They fight. And we only have one car.”

When residents decide to ignore a mandatory evacuation order, they are required to stay in their homes. If they are found out on the streets, they can be ticketed or forced to leave. Some residents wear shirts emblazoned with the name of a fire agency, in the hope of fooling the police.

“Some people don’t like to be told what to do,” Mr. Bauer said.

He said a friendly deputy sheriff had brought him food, and he had made furtive trips to a nearby gas station that stayed open to serve the firefighters.

As he spoke, he was alerted to some good news on his phone: the evacuation order was being lifted that afternoon.

“What a relief,” said Mr. Bauer. “It’s like being grounded when you are a kid.”

The communities along the lake were saved from the fire, but a short detour off Highway 20 to a remote and rugged area called Spring Valley, northwest of Clearlake Oaks, told a different story.

Only in the last few years has cellphone service become available in the valley. “We just entered the 21st century here,” said Oscar Sager, 67, who excitedly showed off cellphone videos of the fires that burned around him in recent weeks as he tried to save his property.

He only partially succeeded. He owns three trailer homes on four acres, and one of them — the one his wife had been living in — burned down. He also shares the property with “five dogs and three birds,” he said, and all of them are safe.

“I’ve been evacuated five times in five years,” said Mr. Sager, who is retired after careers as a firefighter and a boilermaker and has recently relied for survival on the kindness of power company workers, who have given him apples and sandwiches. “I stayed each time,” he said.

Pointing to a clearing near a creek bed, he said that when the flames became too strong for his garden hose, “I sat in the field over there and watched my place burn.”

Luckily, he said, he was able to save his ice cream truck, which he has owned for about 50 years and from which he once made good money selling treats to whitewater rafters in the Rumsey Canyon area to the south.

Mr. Sager’s wife will now have to move back in with him, he said. He doesn’t have insurance, so he’s not sure if he will be able to replace the burned-out trailer.

“Ever play Monopoly?” he asks, looking at his small swimming pool, filled with debris and dirt. “This is Baltic. Mediterranean and Baltic.”

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