Lake County fire blew up unexpectedly on crews
The Lake County wildfire that leveled much of the town of Lower Lake began as a small brush fire that firefighters thought they were getting a handle on.
Within hours of its start late Saturday afternoon, Cal Fire officials reported that the blaze was 20 percent contained as six air tankers and 200 ground personnel completely surrounded the ridge that was burning a few miles south of the 1,300-person Lower Lake community.
But as crews closed in on the fire overnight and into Sunday, the blaze got hotter and more energetic. By afternoon, local winds began pushing flames toward firefighters, and embers started flying over their heads.
“At that point there was a flare-up with the heat, lack of humidity and increase in winds,” explained Paul Lowenthal, an assistant fire marshal for the Santa Rosa fire department who is now aiding the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
The fire’s unexpected turn and its mind-blowing pace was also tied to the tinder-dry hillsides, suffering from five years of drought, and their ability to burn hot and quickly and even generate their own weather. “It was pretty hot Sunday, but not exceptional. But the fire was exceptional,” said Daniel Swain, a climate researcher at Stanford University. “If you have really strong temperature differences over a short distance, you can generate winds. That can cause conditions locally to be very different.”
The plume of smoke from big fires can also play a role, Swain noted. The columns become essentially a cloud of not just soot and particles but water vapor, stirring up more weather extremes.
The result for Lower Lake was dozens of homes burning east of the historic downtown - between Lake Street and Bonham Road - even as firefighters went from building to building trying to halt the advance