‘What can I not live without?’ Healdsburg residents grab what they can fleeing Kincade Fire

In an all too-familiar routine, Rebecca Miller packed up her car in Healdsburg on Saturday morning to flee the creeping flames of the Kincade Fire sweeping through Sonoma County.

It was her fifth time as a California resident evacuating her home in the throes of wildfire danger.

The 10-year Healdsburg resident has been watching the flames, literally and in the news, all week. After sparking to life at 9:27 p.m. on Oct. 23, Miller said she first noticed the fires in nearby Geyserville.

“I looked out at my upper floor window and saw the fire, a whole wall of flames over in Geyserville,” Miller, 55, said. “All we could see was red flames on the hill. I stayed up all Wednesday night watching it. We packed some bags and just waited.”

The anxiety quieted by Friday without news of immediate danger to Healdsburg and its 11,000 residents.

But by Saturday morning, the National Weather Service issued a wind weather advisory that threatened gusts of up to 75 mph on Saturday evening and into Sunday. Worried city officials then ordered a mandatory evacuation for Healdsburg and Windsor residents, giving them until 4 p.m. to pack up and get out of town.

“Confidence is high that an offshore wind event featuring strong and dangerous winds and critically low humidity will impact the area from this evening through Monday morning,” the NWS advised. “This event looks to be the strongest since the 2017 wine country fires and potentially a historic event given the strength and duration of the winds.”

Though she and her neighbors watched as what appeared on Friday to be fire plumes touching the sky, Miller was still shocked that the entire two cities were ordered to leave. There are roughly 40,000 combined residents in Healdsburg and Windsor.

“It’s 40,000 people who are on 101 with me right now,” she said. “I’m glad that we’ve left. I’m just really hoping that with everybody leaving, the firefighters can keep the fire out of Healdsburg and have a perimeter out of the city and we can go home. And still have a home.”

More than 2,000 fire personnel are on the ground fighting the flames that have expanded to more than 25,000 acres and burned through nearly 50 structures. As of Saturday afternoon, the fire was 10 percent contained.

“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.”

Officials said the evacuation was precautionary, which could help prevent another 2017 Tubbs Fire scenario that ended in 22 deaths.

“There’s going to be high winds starting later this evening and these are extremely high winds,” said city spokeswoman Rhea Borja. “You pair that with very dry temperatures, there are concerns that the Kincade fire may spread and that’s why for public safety reasons, we are issuing this mandatory evacuation order.”

Miller evacuated during the Tubbs Fire, too, and three more blazes while she lived in Southern California.

At this point, she knows the drill. 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.”

The feeling of dread wasn’t limited to evacuees.

Santa Rosa resident Patrick McCallum, whose home was destroyed in the October 2017 fires, said he and his wife decided not to leave town, but many of their neighbors have gone. He said smoke from the Kincade Fire was visible in his neighborhood.

“The PTSD doesn’t go away right away,” said McCallum, a Sacramento lobbyist who has become a leading advocate for wildfire victims suing PG&E. “Smoke and little things can trigger things. This is real and it’s serious.”

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.
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.