August Complex now California's largest-ever wildfire

The August Complex reached 471,185 acres on Thursday, surpassing the 2018 Mendocino Complex


Lori A. Carter
The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

WILLOWS, Calif. — It's still early in California's ever-lengthening and intensifying fire season, but already in 2020 over 3.1 million acres have burned statewide, mostly in what are now six of the top 20 largest wildfires in state history.

And none of those fires are larger than the inferno that continues to grow in northern Mendocino County, which has now borne the brunt of the two largest fires in state history. The August Complex on Thursday eclipsed the 2018 Mendocino Complex, and at a sprawling 471,185 acres — 736 square miles — it continues to grow.

Soldiers receive training to respond as firefighters to the August Complex, which is now California's largest-ever wildfire. (Photo/Terry Krasko, USDA Forest Service)
Soldiers receive training to respond as firefighters to the August Complex, which is now California's largest-ever wildfire. (Photo/Terry Krasko, USDA Forest Service)

What began Aug. 17 east of Covelo after lightning strikes in the rugged and remote Mendocino National Forest, grew into 37 fires that have merged and become the biggest wildland blaze in state history, according to Cal Fire records.

Containment stood at 24% Thursday.

Most of what's burned so far is wildland, mostly on federal land, though some is state land and some private property.

"It is huge," said Forest Service spokesman Terry Krasko. "I would estimate that it's taken close to one-third of the Mendocino National Forest. It's big, very big."

To the south in the 913,000-acre national forest sits the burn zone of the Mendocino Complex fire, comprised of two 2018 blazes that burned 459,123 acres in Mendocino, Lake, Colusa and Glenn counties, destroyed 280 structures and resulted in the death of one firefighter. It took more than seven weeks to contain the fire complex, at an estimated cost of more than $200 million.

The August Complex is on track to surpass both those marks.

It has destroyed 26 structures, though that number may rise once further damage assessments can occur. One person, a volunteer firefighter from Texas who was fighting the blaze with her son, died in a vehicle crash while on duty.

About 1,120 firefighting personnel are working the fire.

The majority of those are soldiers who are newly minted firefighters. This is the first active-duty military mobilization for wildfire support in California since the Mendocino Complex fire.

"They're from Fort Lewis in Washington State, active-duty Army soldiers," Krasko said. "They've been given recent training and are all brand new firefighters."

Others are from what's called a Type 1 incident management team, one of 16 such federal teams that manage incidents of national significance like fires and hurricanes.

"We need more people, definitely," Krasko said. "But this is what we have at this moment."

Some state Cal Fire personnel are fighting flames in areas outside national forest boundaries, he said. Statewide, all national forests were closed this week in a bid amid a prolonged run of extreme fire weather, with nearly 30 major blazes burning across California.

The crews on the August Complex suffered setbacks over the past few days when heavy winds whipped flames outside of fire lines crews were building.

Tuesday and Wednesday, winds pushed the August fire, which started as 37 separate fires that have mostly merged, and flames gained significant ground, according to U.S. Forest Service statements.

Northeast winds Wednesday worsened increased fire activity on the west side of the fire, with heavy smoke production across the area.

Flames on Tuesday jumped the Black Butte River, continuing beyond the M1 Road and crews discovered on Wednesday the fire had become established in the Yuki Wilderness, as well as private lands to the north and west of the wilderness, according to the forest service.

An unknown number of structures have burned during the fire's growth over the last two days.

Flames also jumped the Eel River on Wednesday.

Firefighters will continue to work on containment lines on the west side of the fire Thursday and in the Monkey Rock area.

Warm and dry conditions with a lot of smoke are expected through the weekend, along with winds with gusts up to 18 mph.

Evacuation orders are in effect for multiple counties. For evacuation information and orders, residents or property owners were asked to contact their respective sheriffs' offices.

Further west, between Willits and Laytonville, is the Oak fire, which has burned areas on both sides of Highway 101. The highway was closed for several days, but reopened Thursday night.

The Oak fire has forced the evacuation of more than 4,000 people and destroyed a handful of structures north of Willits. It was at 863 acres with 25 % containment, Cal Fire said.

In Laytonville, people are on edge, eyeing fires to the south, east and a few little ones that popped up Wednesday on the west side of town.

Those fires were quickly doused and the progress of the Oak fire appears to have been stopped. Evacuation orders were lifted for some areas Thursday afternoon, leaving an area along the west edge of Highway 101 the only area under orders. Areas from Willits to Laytonville are still under evacuation warnings.

Long Valley Feed & Supply owner Meadow Shere said fires and air quality are big topics around the shop.

"The air is better today," she said Thursday. "It looks a little bit less like the end of the world. Monday or Tuesday, whichever day it was, it looked like midnight in the mid of day. That was crazy."

Some people have decided the risk – and the stress of having fires all around them – was too much and have left town for a while, she said.

She's given out several animal travel crates, paying forward the good deeds of people who donated them to her in previous emergencies.

The mood is mixed, she said. Folks are resigned to the fact that fires are part of life in California but also on edge with the severity and enormity of them, in an already taxing year with the coronavirus and civil unrest.

"People are just trying to do the best they can," she said. "I've been talking to people who are like 'Yesterday, was just too much.'

"People are just trying to hang in there and hope for the best. They're just trying to be as prepared as they can and not freak out because that's not helpful. But it's definitely stressful."

The LNU Lightning Complex fires in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Solano and Yolo counties — now fourth on the all-time list — saw no little to no change on Thursday. The biggest blaze, the Hennessey fire centered in Napa County, stood at 305,651 acres and 94% containment. The Walbridge fire in Sonoma County remained at 55,209 acres and 95% containment.

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©2020 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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