HEALDSBURG (CBS SF) — A plume of tropical weather packing gusty winds and dry lightning drifted off toward the Central Valley Monday giving more than 1,000 weary firefighters battling the deadly LNU Lighting Complex fires (map) — the second largest outbreak of wildfires in state’s history — a reprieve from what could have been a deluge of additional spot fires.

The National Weather Service had issued a Red Flag Fire Warning for the area until 5 p.m. Monday expecting the remnants of Hurricane Genevieve to travel over the Bay Area. But it shifted direction, heading over the Central Valley and into the Sierra. The weather service cancelled the warning by 10 a.m.

Cal Fire said Monday crews were making progress on the Walbridge Fire with enough containment for some re-population of evacuated areas. Monday afternoon, Cal Fire reduced some evacuation orders to warnings:

Map Grid 1D1 – Downgrade to Evacuation Warning

  • East of the Sonoma Coast
  • North of Russian River
  • West of Myers Grade Road
  • South of Fort Ross Road

Map Grid 1D2 – Downgrade to Evacuation Warning

  • East of Myers Grade Road
  • North of Russian River
  • West of Cazadero Highway
  • South of Fort Ross Road

People returning to the area must utilize Highway 1 to return to their homes. Highway 116 remains closed east from Cazadero Highway.

Earlier Monday, evacuation orders were also downgraded for the Atlas Peak area, Soda Canyon Road, and an area along Highway 121, among others. However, new evacuation were ordered Monday evening in Marin County for the Woodward Fire portion of the LNU Complex.

LNU LIGHTNING COMPLEX:

As of late Monday morning, the higher priority was shoring up containment on the northern side of the fire in Lake County, Cal Fire said.
There was also heavy mop-up operations along Pleasant Valley Road in Vacaville, where a number of homes were destroyed.

“The fire’s edge with the lack of significant fire activity last night as associated with the thunderstorm, and the higher fuel moistures in
the air today, and the resources on the line, we’re starting a good rhythm to start getting a great containment on this fire,” Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said Monday.

Cal Fire officials emphasized that quelling the Walbridge Fire — which has burned 54,068 acres to date and is only 5 percent contained — will
be a long, uncertain battle, and the fire is still very dangerous.

“We still have a very large incident over there that can still be a little bit unpredictable,” Cal Fire Incident Commander Sean Kavanaugh said.

But Monday morning’s news briefing was the most positive since the lightning-sparked fire sprang to life just over a week ago, with both fire and county officials speaking in forward-looking terms.

“In terms of the county’s overall activities we are of course turning towards recovery,” said Chris Godley, the county’s director of emergency management.

Forecasters did warn there still remained a chance for a thundershower.

“Showers with embedded thunderstorms have been minimal at best along the Central Coast, with only a couple of lightning reports (one of which was just off the coast in Monterey Bay while the other struck on the southeastern flank of the SCU Lightning Complex near Pacheco Pass),” National Weather Service forecasters said. “Primary concern will be the erratic winds associated with the outflow from these showers across the region, which have had gusts ranging from 25-45 mph.”

Aided by the better than anticipated overnight weather, firefighters continued to their progress of containing the sprawling fire area. The complex has burned 347,630 acres and was 21 percent contained as of late Monday morning. More 870 structures had been destroyed and another 234 damaged and 30,500 remained in jeopardy.

Thousands have been evacuated from their homes.

Of the fires included in the LNU Lightning Complex:

  • The Meyers Fire — burning north of Jenner — pretty much under control with 95 percent containment and 2,360 acres burned.
  • The Hennessey Fire that had merged with Gamble, Green, Aetna, Markley, Spanish, Morgan and Round fires in Napa County stood at 293,602 acres and 26% contained early Monday.
  • The Walbridge Fire which merged with Stewarts Fire was west of Healdsburg and has burned 54,068 acres and was 5% contained.

Five people have lost their lives in the complex of fires; three in Napa County and two in Solano County.

The second Solano County victim of the LNU Lightning Complex fires in the North Bay was confirmed by a Cal Fire official said Monday morning.

The person was found in Solano County, where the Hennessey Fire swept to Vacaville last Wednesday, Cal Fire Incident Commander Sean Kavanaugh said.

No more information was immediately available about the victim. Another still unidentified victim was also found last week in a burned building in Solano County near Vacaville.

Among the dead was 70-year-old Mary Hintemeyer. Robert McNeal of Winters lost contact with his mother, Mary, as LNU Complex fires picked up speed Tuesday night.

She tried to go into town earlier that day, only to be stopped.

“Got to the roadblock and (deputies) told her if she goes through, she can’t go back in,” McNeal said of his mother’s fateful decision. “So she went back and that’s when they started prepping the property to leave by then it was too late.”

McNeal said his mother went back to the property on the 6900 block of Highway 128 to get her wheelchair-bound boyfriend Leo McDermott and his son, Tom.

Authorities discovered their remains among the ruins on the property on Wednesday.

McNeal has been up to the property near Markley Cove and believes everyone ended up in a hillside bunker because they were surrounded by flames.

“I believe they weren’t going to the fire shelter because they absolutely knew it was going to be good,” he said. “It was just a last resort, because they had their exit vehicle staged.”

McNeal remembers his mother as the family caretaker, watching over everyone, even during moments of illness. He’s heartbroken over the loss of his best friend.

“I just, I never get to hug her,” he said with his voice cracking with emotion. “I never get to see her. It just ain’t worth it. I just don’t want other people to have to deal with this.”

On Sunday, McNeal had a message for anyone unsure about whether to follow evacuation orders.

“As much as you think you can hurt for somebody, it’s more than that,” he said of his loss. “Just get out, don’t wait. If you think it’s going to be too much to get your sprinklers on before you get out of there, forget those too. Forget it. Get out. Just get out. It ain’t worth it.”

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