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Crews gain on wildfires in Sonoma and Lake counties

Fire rages along the slopes of the Geysers geothermal field, Friday, Nov. 22, 2013.

KENT PORTER/ PD
Published: Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 25, 2013 at 8:06 a.m.

Winds that fanned a wildfire in northeastern Sonoma County's Geysers geothermal area finally died down Sunday, creating weather conditions that helped fire crews gain major ground against the three-day blaze, Cal Fire officials said.

The McCabe fire had ballooned to 3,300 acres since it was first reported early Friday but was 65 percent contained as of 6 p.m. Sunday, Cal Fire officials said.

"A wind-driven fire is a very challenging fire to aggressively fight, because conditions can change so drastically," said Suzie Blankenship, fire prevention specialist for Cal Fire.

Cal Fire officials said they expected to have the McCabe fire contained by Tuesday. Yet starting today they expect to begin releasing many of the 1,684 firefighting personnel to their original jurisdictions.

North Coast firefighers have been battling wildfires across the region, left parched by a combination of subpar winter rainfall over several years and recent strong winds. Recent rainfall did little to increase moisture levels in area vegetation.

In Lake County, fire crews had reached just 5 percent containment of a 350-acre fire raging in the Mendocino National Forest that was first reported just after midnight on Saturday morning. Persistent dry weather and recent high winds haven't helped the situation, said Tamara Schmidt, spokeswoman with the fire service.

"This is pretty unique in terms of the timing, to have a fire this late in the season," Schmidt said.

The McCabe fire in Sonoma County destroyed a cooling tower run by Calpine Corp, the principal operator of the Geysers geothermal field that spans the Sonoma-Lake County border, and forced evacuations of 12 residents, most of whom work for the company.

Evacuations had been lifted as of Sunday and employees at Calpine, were being allowed to return to the power plant Sunday as those areas became safe, Blankenship said.

Some roads in the area remained closed to anyone other than residents, including Cloverdale-Geysers Road at Squaw Creek Road and Healdsburg-Geyser Road at Mercuryville.

"We don't want the public up there on the roads when we have resources up there moving around, and they have to move quickly so we don't want to endanger the public," Blankenship said. "There will be just a couple more days, and they can all go in on those roads."

Two firefighters have been injured in the firefight, officials said.

Wind conditions were expected to continue to improve today, forecast at between 5 and 10 mph, down from gusts of 25 to 30 mph that during the fire's first two days had fanned the flames. National Weather Service forecasters are expecting temperatures in the low 60s.

"We are just holding out for the weather to cooperate and get this wrapped up before the holiday," Blankenship said.

In Lake County, the Mendocino National Forest wildfire's rate of spread had begun to slow down Sunday, said Schmidt, spokeswoman with the fire service.

Dubbed the High Glade Fire, it was first reported Saturday morning in a remote area north of High Glade Lookout in the Upper Lake Ranger District of the Mendocino National Forest. The area is about 10 miles northeast of Upper Lake.

There weren't any known injuries or threatened structures and the fire's cause remained under investigation Sunday, Schmidt said.

"Because we have these unique dry conditions right now, were just encouraging people to be careful" with campfires, stoves and chain saws, Schmidt said. "In the long range forecast, at least for us, we're not seeing precipitation any time soon."

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