AN INTRODUCTION TO MENDOCINO COUNTY
Mendocino County was one of the original counties of California, created in 1850 at the time of statehood. The county derives its name from Cape Mendocino (most of which is actually located in adjacent Humboldt County).
Mendocino County is located in California’s north coast region, bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west, Sonoma County to the south, Lake County to the southeast and east, Glenn and Tehama Counties to the east and northeast, Trinity County to the north and east, and Humboldt County to the north. The borders with Glenn and Tehama Counties are completely within the Mendocino National Forest in the county’s northeastern portion.
Within an area of 3,510 square miles, Mendocino County’s elevation runs from sea level at the ocean to 6,954 feet atop Anthony Peak, near the Tehama County border. Inland from 129 miles of magnificent coastline, the environment is as varied as the terrain. World-class vineyards thrive in the southern valleys, and stands of redwoods and Douglas-firs tower down from the Pacific Coast Range. Numerous mountain peaks over 6,000 feet grace the northeastern portion of the county and bear snow caps until early summer. Oak woodlands on rolling hills are scattered throughout the county.
The county is characterized by steep slopes, with the main ridges oriented north-northwest to south-southeast. Rivers and streams are abundant, some flowing year round and others drying up in the summer. The mighty Eel River drains to the north and the Russian River to the south. Rivers west of the first divide inland from the coast, just west of the Highway 101 corridor, drain basically east to west, to the ocean. These include, from south to north, the Gualala River North Fork, plus the Garcia, Navarro, Albion, Big, Noyo, and Ten Mile Rivers.
The population of Mendocino County is currently estimated at 87,200, with an overall density of only 23 persons per square mile. The majority of residents live in and around the valleys along Highway 101, which winds through the county from south-southeast to the north-northwest for 106 miles. Other population centers include the dozen or so communities along Highway 1, which travels the coast from the county’s south end until it turns inland about 30 miles north of Fort Bragg and joins Highway 101 at Leggett. These towns are, from south to north, Gualala, Anchor Bay, Point Arena, Manchester, Irish Beach, Elk, Albion, Little River, Mendocino, Caspar, Fort Bragg, Cleone, Westport, and Rockport.
The county includes only four incorporated cities: Ukiah with approximately 16,000 residents, Willits with 4,900, Fort Bragg with 7,200, and Point Arena with 450. The rest of the county’s local governments are special districts of various kinds, including community service districts, fire districts, water districts, and others established to provide specific services. The nature of governance relative to local fire protection services will be discussed in Chapter 2.
Wildland subdivisions and continuous areas of Wildland-Urban Interface or Intermix are predominant around the population centers, and these are likely to increase in size and number. Recent and upcoming improvements on Highway 101 make Mendocino County more and more attractive to persons desiring a rural lifestyle while commuting to work in Santa Rosa and even the San Francisco Bay Area.
Mendocino County enjoys a Mediterranean climate, with dry summers during which typically no rain falls from early June to late October. The weather can vary greatly on the same day in different parts of the county. An average summer day may find the coastal areas at 60 degrees and inland temperatures at 90 to 105 degrees. The warmer the Sacramento Valley becomes, the deeper fog intrudes from the ocean up the coastal drainages, and the windier the inland valleys become. Diverse microclimates benefit from having four seasons and 40 to 100 inches of annual rainfall, depending on the location, elevation, and weather patterns. The declared fire season in Mendocino County typically lasts from early June to mid or late October.
Vegetative fuel types in the county consist of grass, oak woodlands, brush, mixed chaparral, timber, and cut-over slash. Few areas of Mendocino County have not been harvested for timber in the past. Brush is usually composed of chamise on the south and west facing slopes and mixed chaparral on the north and east facing slopes. Mendocino County has seen relatively few large wildfires in the past several decades, resulting in a massive build-up of wildland fuels ready to burn.