In candid online forum, firefighters chronicle Valley fire's wrath

The listserv calls itself "THE source for current wildfire information" since 1996, beckoning members to "make yourself at home and tell us what you think!"

And as the Valley fire exploded through Lake County, spreading into Napa County on Sunday, firefighters from across the country weighed in on WildlandFire.com, monitoring radio traffic and offering a time-stamped assessment of a blaze that spread unusually fast, causing devastation.

More than 17,000 people have been displaced by the fire, and hundreds of structures have burned. State officials have deployed more than 1,400 firefighters to battle the inferno.

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One thread on the listserv, kicked off at 1:49 p.m. Saturday by an El Dorado County firefighter who goes by the name BigWhiteDog, hinted at what was to come:

"Picking up air traffic for a fire near Mt St. Helena and/or Cobb Mtn in Northern Napa Valley. At least one heavy and a lead plane inbound plus several helos. Anyone?"

What followed was a tick-tock of a blaze that took many aback, among them the four firefighters who ended up with second-degree burns after a helicopter landing on Cobb Mountain.

"Lots of bug kill up there, numerous homes and subdivisions, if it is on Cobb; backside of St. Helena is extremely steep," a user replied at 2:11 p.m.

By 2:23 p.m., 40 engines had been requested. By 2:41, another post said CalFire had reported 50 acres burned. A 2:47 p.m. post reported the fire growing "at an incredible rate."

At 3:10 p.m., nary2220 wrote: "#Structure Protection group says it's starting to hit houses hard in the #WhisperingPines neighborhood." Twenty-five minutes later, the mandatory evacuation zone had extended near Middletown to Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing-optional spa and retreat that was hit hard.

At 4:09 p.m., the moderator weighed in. The injured firefighters had been flown to UC Davis Medical Center. "Feel free to start a well wishes thread for Copter 104 crew," he wrote. "It may need it's own thread, but we encourage the positive thoughts."

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By 4:19, flames were visible from Middletown, which would suffer what appeared to be the most severe blow.

"Big ... Very big. Air Ops being shut down because of turbulence," a user noted at 5:41 p.m.

The fire was estimated to be spread acroos 10,000 acres, but it was just the beginning. Within hours, the figure was pegged at 25,000 acres.

"Lots of propane popping off," a member named caddy1001 posted shortly before midnight, noting "numerous structure loss" in the Berryessa Estates area. "Never thought I would see this in my own neighborhood. Winds have receded significantly."

It didn't last.

At 1:30 a.m. Sunday, NoDeltaBravos posted that firefighters had just launched an operation to "save Middletown Cal-Fire Station 31," which was serving as a command post of sorts. "A lot of people weren't so lucky," the poster wrote. "Wind (south) has picked up again."

Just before dawn, Bluezebra noted that resources were spread too thin and that many departments in fire-weary California were simply unable to pitch in. "If resources have not been dispatched from your agency, it is probably because your Chief or OP Area Coordinator has stated your area is at drawdown."

The acreage consumed by the blaze was soon raised to 40,000, and by Sunday afternoon, to 50,000. By 9:20 p.m. Sunday, a user noted that as many as 1,000 homes may have burned.

For more news about wildfires in California, follow @LeeRomney

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