A house guest awoke Yoshi Makino around 1:30 a.m. to look at the glow of fire showing over the eastern hills from Potter Valley. Within a half hour, the whole ridge was on fire.
“It was so fast-moving,” she said.
Eight people died in the Redwood Valley fire near Ukiah, while last week’s fires overall have killed 41 people, burned more than 245,000 acres and destroyed more than 5,700 structures across California, CAL FIRE’s Public Information Officer Lynne Tolmachoff reported Tuesday.
CAL FIRE is a name of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in charge of fighting the state's fires in “State Responsibility Areas of California,” totaling 31 million acres. It contracts with local governments to provide varied emergency services.
The past week firefighters have streamed into the state from 17 states and as far away as Australia. Yreka CAL FIRE’s Public Information Officer Suzi Brady was at the CAL FIRE staging area in Ukiah on Sunday working on what is called the Mendocino/Lake Complex.
Ukiah, the Mendocino County seat, is bisected by Highway 101, and is about 65 miles north of Santa Rosa. Redwood Valley is 6 miles north of Ukiah. The staging area has taken over much of the Redwood Empire Fairgrounds.
Twelve engines left Yreka Monday, headed for the Sonoma Lake Napa Unit of CAL FIRE. They would help out wherever needed. They all wound up fighting the fire in Redwood Valley, Brady said.
Additional firefighters were sent south from local departments in Mount Shasta, Dunsmuir, Etna and Fort Jones, as well, Brady said on Saturday.
Fort Jones sent two trucks and, with one truck from Plumas County, they made up a strike team that was working the northwest section of Redwood Valley, setting backfires on Sunday. The strike team’s bulldozer was working in the southwest region of the fire.
Two other CAL FIRE employees from the county are working the fire. Ron Bravo is working as Deputy Incident Commander, and Tim DeVos is working as a Safety Officer.
The fires in Mendocino County started in Potter Valley, which lies over a low mountain range to the east, and burned several homes over there before it crested the hill.
Linda Chapman and her husband, Bob Gates, a retired firefighter from the Redwood Valley Fire Department, live on the east side of the valley. Her mother lives with them. Linda said the winds on Sunday the 8th sounded like a freight train at times, and she told her husband as they went to bed that night that she was worried about the wind and fire.
They kept waking up, and at 2:30, Bob looked out the window to the east and found the top of the ridge “a line of fire.”
She rushed to help her 102-year-old mother, Doris, dress, and soon the fire was at the back door.
“It had swept down the hills and across the valley in 30 minutes,” she said.
As she left the house with her mother, “the house was on fire and windows were exploding,” she said.
She managed to put her three cats and her mother's wheelchair in the car as well, but nothing else. Bob stayed behind to fight the fire and prevented her art therapy studio from burning.
Their house was lost and the garage went, too.
Linda is proud her mother has a positive attitude. When I spoke with them, they had just been shopping for clothes, toothbrush and toothpaste. Doris had also bought a plastic box to store them in. Doris is comfortable staying with Warren and Wilma Pribyl who are friends from church.
Her cats were housed at the Mendocino Animal Hospital because her girl friend from Princeton called her as she was evacuating. “I get up early,” Linda said, by way of explaining why her friend would call her at 3 a.m.
She was distraught about finding a place for her cats. Her friend hung up and called her back a few minutes later. She had called the hospital for information and found they were accepting animals free of charge. They had three cages left and would hold them for Linda's cats.
“They just helped me so much,” she said. “They've been a wonderful place.”
Community is strong in the Ukiah Valley, which includes Redwood Valley. But citizens there and in Willits to the north found they didn't have home phones, internet or cell phone service after the fire struck.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said in a press conference that the telephone line melted when the fire burned across Hwy 101 northwest of Redwood Valley. It had also burned cell towers and the internet transfer station twice.
“We weren't getting any news,” Linda said. People with electricity turned to the television for news and found coverage focused completely on the Sonoma and Napa county fires.
“And what they showed was the same house burning down.” People needed to hear what to do and where to get help. On Wednesday, the region was not getting even a mention on the nightly news. People in the Bay Area hadn't heard of the fires in Mendocino County.
When cell phone service came back, people took to Facebook for their news and to vent their frustration. News of the Redwood Fire began to be reported. But still coverage often showed the same news clips of burning buildings in Sonoma County.
“The news shows just want emotional drama,” Linda said. She said they needed to have taken the time to find information that would help people find help.
“I’m a trauma therapist,” Linda said. “I will teach you what you need to know.”
Linda’s attitude mirrors her mother's. She is happy and bright-eyed despite her losses. “I'm just happy we have a place to live,” she said.
Residents were allowed back to the fire-scorched area south of Tomki Road on Sunday, and residents from Tomki Road were allowed back in the next day. But the CAL FIRE workers are settled in for the long haul.
Suzi Brady said the Siskiyou CAL FIRE unit is covered in Yreka. “The Oregon Department of Forestry is helping us staff some stations,” she added.
CAL FIRE is also renting some local government engines and staffing them with personnel.
“It’s going to be a long road to build the community back up,” Brady said.
Note: Dana Flint, a reporter for the Weed Press, grew up in Redwood Valley. She was in town to visit her mother in Ukiah. Of the three houses she lived in as a child, two of them burned to the ground in the Redwood Fire. Dana did not lose her home in the Boles Fire in Weed.