Nearly 90,000 evacuated in Sonoma County as Kincade Fire peril intensifies

»» Update: ‘Evacuate Windsor now!!’ Kincade Fire racing through Sonoma County, wind gusts at 80 mph

The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County took an ominous turn Saturday as Cal Fire expanded evacuation orders to include Healdsburg and a wide swath of territory stretching to Bodega Bay on the Pacific coast, a move affecting 89,000 people.

The fire, which began Wednesday night in Geyserville, was threatening to turn into a monster as night fell and wind forecasts worsened. State and county officials expanded the evacuation zone to coastal regions 40 miles west of where the fire started. The order included Healdsburg, a tourist town in the heart of wine country, and Windsor.

By nightfall, as PG&E Corp. began its “public safety power shutoff,” the evacuation area had been extended to within about two miles of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood — the area hit hardest by the deadly Tubbs Fire two years ago.

The evacuation orders came as crews furiously tried to contain the fire, which was reported at 24,955 acres, before ferocious winds kicked in late Saturday. The fire remained only 11 percent contained Saturday night and 77 homes and other buildings were reported destroyed.

The National Weather Service and other organizations said wind gusts could approach 80 mph — the kind of wildfire weather not seen in the area since the catastrophic October 2017 fires.

Early Saturday evening, the sheriff’s office reported the evacuation zone was extended to western Sonoma County, through Guerneville and the Russian River Valley to Bodega Bay.

Ryan Walburn of the National Weather Service said the fiercest winds were expected to start sometime before midnight and probably would rival the winds seen in the October 2017 wine country fires. Gusts could reach 80 mph. “We’re up for a long-duration wind event, high intensity,” he said.

Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire spokesman, called the evacuation orders a preventive measure against “a worst-case scenario for this fire.” Capt. Stephen Volmer, a fire behavior analyst with the agency, said the winds were expected to start blowing the fire in a southwesterly direction toward Highway 101.

Although the fire spread relatively little throughout the day Saturday, that was expected to change as winds kicked up. “It is going to have some dangerous rates of spread,” Volmer said late Saturday. “We’re going to see those rates increase dramatically.”

The evacuation order left Healdsburg, one of the top tourist destinations in Sonoma wine country, eerily quiet late Saturday. A sign posted on the door of St. John’s Catholic Church said simply, “No Mass Today.” Mayor David Hagele, patrolling the center of town, said the evacuation had been fairly calm and he was pleased that most people had heeded the evacuation order.

“We’ve seen the mapping models, we can see what can potentially happen with the wind and we’re hoping for the best but we’re prepared,” the mayor said, adding that he wasn’t sure if he would leave.

“If things get nuts, I’m out,” he said.

Sheriff Mark Essick scolded those who refused to leave, saying his deputies weren’t going to go “door to door” rescuing people.

“Fire’s not something you can fight. In October 2017 we lost 24 lives in Sonoma County because we didn’t have a warning .... Fire’s not something you can fight.”

He said residents could evacuate to the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Hall, the Petaluma Veterans Hall and the Petaluma fairgrounds. The Santa Rosa Fairgrounds was open for livestock only.

At the Petaluma Veterans Hall, Craig Allison and his wife Pat Sherman arrived early from their home in Windsor with their three dogs Ronny, Keith and Cookie.

There was a slight smoky haze in the late afternoon, and hardly a breeze, and Allison wasn’t completely convinced he needed to leave. “If I didn’t have my wife and dogs, I would have sent them away and stayed myself, and seen what shook out,” he said.

But he added it was probably just as well to leave Windsor behind. “Better safe than sorry,” he said.

Not everyone heeded the evacuation order. Ron Babbini, clutching a water bottle in front of his Healdsburg home, said he was afraid of looters getting into his home. “Everybody’s gone and the only people that are left here are the homeless,” he said. He also said he wasn’t convinced the flames would reach Healdsburg.

Healdsburg, population 11,000, is one of the most popular tourist towns in Sonoma wine country. Windsor, a few miles south, has a population of 27,000.

With a total of 89,000 ordered to leave, it marks the largest wildfire evacuation in California since the Camp Fire last November.

“It is a significant number of people to move out and we want to get a head start,” Austin said.

At midday, the city of Healdsburg was already beginning to empty out.

“It’s probably been a nonstop line of cars leaving town,” said Dylan Sanders, front desk supervisor at the Harmon Guest House, a 39-room hotel in Healdsburg’s picturesque downtown. “People are handling it pretty well — not too much frantic behavior.”

Sanders said that although the fire was still probably 15 miles north, the smoke was enveloping Healdsburg.

“The town is hazy, the smell of smoke is pretty much everywhere,” he said. “Even the lobby here in the hotel, it works its way in.”

The expanded evacuation zone, taking in thousands of people, includes the Highway 101 corridor south from Geyserville, where the fire started Wednesday night, to Healdsburg and Windsor and east to the Chalk Hill Road area. Cal Fire also said people living in the Dry Creek Valley west to Forestville should evacuate, as well as the Larkfield area.

“They don’t want another Tubbs incident,” said Healdsburg firefighter Jonah Bren, referring to the 2017 fire that killed 22 people. “They want everyone cleared out of Healdsburg and Windsor so first responders can actually fight the fires and not worry about evacuating people.”

City spokeswoman Rhea Borja said the mandatory evacuation order was issued in enough time to allow residents until 4 p.m. to clear out of the city.

We are really emphasizing to people that its only 11 a.m., and they have a few hours to prepare,” Borja said. “Do not panic. Southbound 101 may be congested due to the amount of people heading away, so be patient.”

Borja said that city workers will be going door-to-door Saturday to encourage people to leave and will be helping vulnerable people such as the elderly leave the area. Updates to the city’s plans will be available on Facebook and the city’s website.

In an all too-familiar routine, Rebecca Miller packed up her car in Healdsburg on Saturday morning to flee the creeping flames. It was her fifth time as a California resident evacuating her home in the throes of wildfire danger. She, her husband and her 15-year-old daughter packed up their two cars with a suitcase each and toiletries. They left their 105-year-old home in what felt, by early afternoon, like “a ghost town.”

Three cats, some valuables like jewelry, a box of family heirlooms, childhood photos and school and medical records travel with the family to Marin County, where they’ll stay with extended relatives until it’s safe to return.

“There’s like a mental line that you draw and say, ‘I’m going to take up to 20K and everything after that you have to emotionally let go of,’” Miller said, 45 minutes into traffic and just reaching Santa Rosa. “Looking around the house and thinking, ‘What can I not live without?’ I have a lot of family heirlooms and I just have to leave it all. That’s hard. But my kids are safe, my husband and I are safe, and we’re now entering Santa Rosa and we’re out of the evacuation zone. It will be heartbreaking if Healdsburg isn’t there anymore.”

Earlier, emergency agencies announced evacuation warnings were in effect for several Lake County communities to the east, including the area around Cobb Mountain. The Cobb Mountain area was devastated by the 2015 Valley Fire.

Until Saturday, the evacuation orders were limited to about 2,000 people living in an around Geyserville.

In an early morning update, Cal Fire said the Kincade Fire “is burning in remote steep terrain making access difficult and slow due to narrow roads.” Cal Fire officials have been anxious to make progress on the fire while weather conditions were more favorable.

After nearly two days of calm, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for much of Northern and Central California amid forecasts of winds exceeding 60 mph.

PG&E Corp. announced it had begun to shutting to an estimated 940,000 homes and businesses in the largest of its “public safety power shutoffs.” It originally said the shutoffs would affect 850,000 homes.

The blackout is expected to last at least 48 hours, span parts of 36 counties and cover an estimated 2 million or more Californians. Nearly one in five PG&E customers would be left without power.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.