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Haze from the largest fire in California history filled the air near the town of Clearlake on Tuesday as Jim Steele, a local supervisor, drove his pickup truck through a landscape of smoldering hillsides and charred trees to check on the homes of citizens in his district.

On surrounding ridgelines, firefighters continue to battle a pair of blazes that had reached more than 450 sq miles (292,692 acres) with 33% containment as of Tuesday afternoon. The area is only about 110 miles from San Francisco. Elsewhere in the state, crews continue to battle 17 blazes fueled by heat, wind and low humidity levels.

Much of Yosemite national park is closed, and a total of almost 1,000 sq miles (629,531 acres) has already burned in California during 2018, although the season is only just gearing up.

Steele, a professional forester who formerly worked for the state, had obvious worries about the safety of his constituents, who have seen blazes run through their community repeatedly over the last four years and are concerned about their effect on the marijuana industry.

The Lake county supervisor Jim Steele looks at a list of addresses to check for fire damage.
The Lake county supervisor Jim Steele looks at a list of addresses to check for fire damage. Photograph: Scott Bransford for the Guardian

Yet he echoed the hopes of other officials that this fire-prone region might use the current crisis, and local knowledge, to develop a model for making California communities less prone to costly conflagrations.

An independent, he had strong words about Donald Trump’s recent tweet falsely claiming that fires were fueled by the state’s water use policies.

“He is ignorant, totally ignorant,” Steele, a fifth-generation Californian and air force veteran, said of Trump. “It shows he doesn’t understand this situation and isn’t equipped to understand. It takes a lot of background before you’re able to come to a reasonable understanding.”

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Steve Kaufmann, a Cal Fire spokesperson, said one of the most aggressive areas of the fire complex was to the north and east of Clearlake, a community surrounded by wineries, farms and ranches, where personnel are battling the blaze in a mountainous area of steep terrain.

Air crews, sometimes unable to fly as air inversion layers create dense areas of smoke, have managed to drop roughly 1m gallons of flame retardant on the blaze in an effort to keep it away from populated areas.

A satellite image shows part of the Mendocino complex fire in California.
A satellite image shows part of the Mendocino complex fire in California. Photograph: DIGITALGLOBE/Reuters

Unlike in wealthier coastal enclaves such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, people in economically struggling communities like Clearlake have less money to strengthen their homes against fire risks and clear their properties of brush and other fire hazards.

There is a conservative distrust in government locally. Adding to tensions, on ranches and throughout the national forests that cover large swaths of land throughout northern California’s interior, marijuana cultivation – accepted by the state of California yet still forbidden by federal authorities – is an important source of economic sustenance.

The illegal status of that activity exacerbates tension between many local residents and bureaucracies such as the US Forest Service, which plays an important role in fire prevention. Often, Steele said, fire prevention via education failed as a result.

At Twin Pine casino near Middletown, which had served as an evacuation center for 120 people as of Tuesday, one resident who fled the blaze offered a conspiracy theory – often repeated among Lake county residents – that government officials were allowing the fires to burn because they wanted to eliminate the marijuana industry. John Hall, 70, said he believed there was a plot to put unregulated cannabis farmers out of business.

“They want to wipe out the competition,” said Hall, who once worked for forestry companies.

Steele said: “Cannabis is their economy,” noting that many of his constituents made a living by growing marijuana outside the purview of the federal government. “Their education is the government coming and tearing up plants.”

Kaufmann, of Cal Fire, said that conspiracy theories about fire were common during large blazes, and that it was irresponsible to validate them by responding to each one individually.

John Hall, a resident of Nice, California, said unregulated cannabis growing in Lake county created tension between government firefighting agencies and local residents.
John Hall, a resident of Nice, California, said unregulated cannabis growing in Lake county created tension between government firefighting agencies and local residents. Photograph: Scott Bransford for the Guardian

While there’s a strong consensus among scientists that climate change is playing a role in the current catastrophic fire season, those who study ecology in the region say that parts of the local ecosystem have always been prone to periodic fires that take on a catastrophic scale.

If wildfires were not suppressed by firefighters, as they are now, the region “would burn every 20 to 50 years at high severity”, said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, who studies human-fire interaction in the region for the University of California division of agriculture and natural resources. The prolonged droughts that experts attribute to climate change have only exacerbated that tendency.

Quinn-Davidson and Steele both said that the area around the Mendocino complex might be a good place to engineer fire prevention strategies that take local sensibilities into account and offer assistance to those who can’t fortify their houses by, for example, replacing shake roofs or hiring timber companies to clear trees.

“I think we really need to have programs and support for smaller landowners and homeowners,” Quinn-Davidson said.

University of California scientists based in the region are monitoring ways in which preventive burning might play a key role in paring back the shrub vegetation that contributes heavily to fires. This is a strategy that might transcend political differences.

“You can get a Trump supporter together with environmentalists and the timber industry, and everyone can collaborate on a prescribed burning program,” said Quinn-Davidson.

Other potential solutions supported by local observers include thinning forests through carefully planned commercial timber harvests, and limiting future development in the fire-prone urban-wildland interface.

Steve Hegedus, 69, of the small town of Clearlake Oaks, expressed hope that the fire could bring people together to develop neighborhood fire prevention strategies, helping them escape a fiercely independent mindset that often keeps them isolated. The region’s many retirees, he said, were also frequently unable to maintain their properties and act as bulwarks against advancing blazes.

“A lot of us are really old,” Hegedus said. “The generations after us, I think they can do a lot better.”

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