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One year after: Looking back at the Lobo and McCourtney fires (PHOTO GALLERY)

The morning of Oct. 9, 2017, is a date many Nevada County residents won’t soon forget.

Overnight, two large, wind driven wildfires — the Lobo and McCourtney — sparked up in Rough and Ready and on McCourtney Road, sending plumes of smoke and ash into the air.

Those that had time to pack some belongings did, while others had to run with little more than the clothes they wore.

Firefighters in Grass Valley responding to the McCourtney Fire worked to evacuate residents and protect what homes they could while waiting for help.

It wouldn’t come until much later.

Timeline created by Content Editor Samantha Sullivan

In Yuba County, a wildfire turned fatal when four people died in the Cascade and LaPorte fires which quickly burned thousands of acres and scores of structures and homes.

Toward the coast, the same wind storm was wreaking havoc on Sonoma, Napa and Lake Counties, leveling neighborhoods in Santa Rosa where 22 people died.

By Monday morning, forward progress of the McCourtney Fire had been all but contained to 76 acres. The Lobo Fire, however, had burned through a good portion of Rough and Ready and was headed toward Lake Wildwood.

Rough and Ready’s Heather Winthal witnessed first hand the intensity of the Lobo Fire, losing everything except her family in the process.

“I only had maybe five minutes to get my son and husband out, and our three dogs,” Winthal said.

Winthal and her family had to drive through a wall of flame to evacuate, leaving with just the clothes they were wearing.

“We lost everything. Our house, our two cats, my husband’s ‘72 ‘Cuda,” Winthal said. “The only thing I had left from my grandmother — my wedding ring — was gone, burnt up in the jewelry box.”

Three firefighters later tried to help her sift through the ashes to find it, but to no avail.

“It’s been a hard year,” Winthal said.

Grab and run

By the time the Lobo Fire approached Lake Wildwood, the Nevada County office of Emergency Services had issued the Code Red reverse 911 system to alert those residents to evacuations.

Evacuees watched from the Lake Wildwood dam as Cal Fire air tankers and helicopters made retardant and water drops, waiting anxiously for word they could return to their homes.

Others took what belongings they could to the Red Cross evacuation center, or went and stayed with friends and family members until evacuation orders were downgraded four days later.

Full containment of the Lobo Fire didn’t come until Oct. 19 after 821 acres burned. The Cascade Fire almost 10,000 acres while the LaPorte Fire burned 6,151 acres. Between the four fires — referenced as the Wind Complex — 203 homes were destroyed, 194 outbuildings and 1 commercial structure. Over 1,200 firefighters were assigned to the combined 17,037 acres.

Where we’re at today

One year later, the realization of California’s now normal rapacious wildfire season is apparent with the destructive and deadly Mendocino Complex and Carr fires, which burned for over a month this summer, as well as the North Fire near Emigrant Gap.

While Nevada County has so far been spared major wildfire incidents this year, it hasn’t been because of a lack of opportunity.

The Oak Fire burned 16 acres off of Buck Mountain Road in South County Aug. 12, taking one structure with it. A few days later, on Aug. 15 about 6 acres of vegetation burned behind some ranchettes on Wolf Road, and on Sept. 7 about an acre burned on a steep slope of heavy vegetation in the South Yuba River State Park near Bridgeport.

Much of that is owed to the quick and heavy initial responses from Nevada County firefighting agencies, including the air attack pilots from the Grass Valley Interagency Air Attack Base.

Area gets prepared

A lot is also owed to the residents of the county who have been proactive over the past year in wildfire management and fuels reduction.

“I think if anything’s changed this year from last year, is the prep for wildfire,” Grass Valley Fire Chief Mark Buttron said. “Vegetation management and fuels reduction is potentially the savior of your property. If you’ve done fuels management, you’ve given us the opportunity to protect your structure and defend your property.”

A recent code change has helped the City of Grass Valley better achieve compliance when it comes to excess vegetation within city limits.

“You can see it when you drive around town making sure that their trees are limbed up,” Buttron said. “It’s true in the city as well as in the county.”

In many instances residents have been hiring companies to mulch through vegetation.

“Several of these vendors in the local area are working nonstop in order to get people where they want to be in terms of fuel reduction,” Buttron said. “The vendors that do that kind of work, they’re so impacted that it’s hard to get them available.”

Getting the word out

The Nevada County Office of Emergency Services has seen an uptick in residents enrolling their phones in the CodeRED Nevada County reverse 911 system used to alert folks about evacuation orders and dangerous situations as they arise.

Before the start of the 2017 wildfires, 80,828 phones had been registered for CodeRED. By October of this year, 92,578 phones had been registered.

Office of Emergency Services and additional county fire inspectors attended dozens of community meetings and events over the past year, urging them to sign up for CodeRED.

“We also contracted with 211 Connecting Point to help sign residents up for CodeRED during the summer months — that has been a huge win-win for both agencies,” County Administrative Analyst Taylor Wolfe said.

“211 Connecting Point has been asking all callers if they are currently subscribed, and if not and they would like to get them signed up, they can help do so over the phone.”

To contact Multimedia Reporter Elias Funez, email efunez@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

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