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Largest wildfire in CA history expected to be contained in September

SF Gate logo SF Gate 8/9/2018 By Michael Cabanatuan

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California’s biggest-ever wildfire grew to 10 times the size of San Francisco on Wednesday, as the Mendocino Complex sent clouds of cough-inducing smoke across the Bay Area and forced officials to admit the conflagration might not be contained until September.

The massive inferno has burned more than 300,000 acres — or 469 square miles — in Lake, Mendocino and Colusa counties near Clear Lake, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. The record-setting wildfire, which is technically two separate blazes, is 47 percent contained and not expected to be under control until Sept. 1.

Eighteen fires in total are burning in California, including a Marin County vegetation fire that sprang up Wednesday, but was quickly slowed. Fire officials said they have gained ground on the biggest of the state’s blazes, though many others continue to grow.

The blazes are forcing precautions away from the fire zones.

Citing extreme fire danger, Cal Fire indefinitely prohibited open fires in wildland areas of Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and the western portions of Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

The unusual move means people will not be able to build campfires, use charcoal barbecues or light up cigarettes in the forested areas and grasslands outside city limits that are under the jurisdiction of Cal Fire’s Santa Clara unit.

Also, Camp Mather, which is near the northwestern corner of Yosemite and is operated by San Francisco, extended its closure once more as air quality remains unhealthy in the region from the Ferguson Fire. Camp officials announced the cancellation of its next session on Wednesday, meaning the popular summer camp will not reopen until Aug. 19 at the earliest. Campers will receive a full refund and a guaranteed spot at Camp Mather in 2019.

The northern edge of the Ranch Fire, the larger of the two blazes that make up the Mendocino Complex, reached deeper into the Mendocino National Forest on Wednesday, burning an untold number of conifers. The nearby River Fire did not grow and was 81 percent contained at 48,920 acres.

Together, the fires were threatening 10,300 homes as of Wednesday morning, while 116 homes and 105 other structures have already been destroyed.

Despite the singular title, the Mendocino Complex is actually two fires that are being classified and managed as one. The decision to call it the largest fire in modern state history, said Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire battalion chief, was to provide perspective.

“Having that distinction once a fire gets beyond 200,000 acres is really just a relative perspective,” he said. “These are mega-fires. It’s unreal.”

Cal Fire maintains a list of the 20 largest California wildfires, measured by acres consumed. The state agency also ranks fires based on structures destroyed.

But even as the Mendocino Complex spread, officials allowed some Lake County residents to return to their homes. All lanes of Highway 20 were reopened and evacuation orders were lifted for the communities of Upper Lake, Nice, Lucerne, Pepperwood Grove, Paradise Valley, Glenhaven and Clearlake Oaks.

The deadly Carr Fire, near Redding, grew slightly Wednesday and has consumed 176,069 acres. The inferno, which has killed seven people, was 47 percent contained Wednesday evening with no projected date for full containment.

The most destructive of the state’s wildfires this year, the Carr Fire started July 23. It has destroyed 1,077 homes but currently burns in steep, mountainous terrain and timberland along the Shasta-Trinity counties’ border. Officials continued to lift evacuation orders Wednesday, mostly near Redding, to allow evacuees to return to their homes.

While the fires rage about 100 miles north of San Francisco, smoke from the Mendocino Complex and other fires, coupled with smog, created unhealthy air conditions in the Bay Area, turning the skies hazy and gray and making the smell of smoke noticeable in some locations. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District declared Spare the Air Days for Wednesday and Thursday, urging people to stay indoors when possible.

The Ferguson Fire, which has shut down Yosemite National Park’s most popular attractions, consumed 94,992 acres as of Wednesday evening and was 68 percent contained and not expected to be under control until Wednesday.

Access to the park remains limited, even as some evacuees are returning, but businesses in the area have suffered as the blaze and park closure drive away tourists.

Firefighters from the Marin County Fire Department sprang into action Wednesday afternoon, preventing the Bridge Fire on Black Mountain from spreading just west of Nicasio Reservoir.

Laine Hendricks, a Fire Department spokeswoman, said the vegetation fire broke out at 12:44 p.m. and quickly expanded from 4 acres to around 25. No structures were threatened and no evacuations ordered, but some roads in the area were closed.

In Southern California, Orange County sheriff’s deputies Wednesday arrested a suspect for starting the Holy Fire, which had grown to more than 4,000 acres and is just 5 percent contained.

Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, was booked into Orange County Jail on suspicion of two counts of felony arson, one count of felony threat to terrorize, and one count of misdemeanor resisting arrest.

Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mcabanatuan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ctuan

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