As winds howl, Sonoma residents flee Kincade Fire to clogged roads, full shelters

As winds howl through Northern California and fan the already powerful Kincade Fire, around 180,000 Sonoma County residents have been ordered to evacuate up and down the coast reaching as far west as Bodega Bay.

“Approx 180,000 people under evacuation order due to #KincadeFire,” the Sonoma sheriff’s office said on Twitter Sunday morning. “This is the largest evacuation that any of us at the Sheriff’s Office can remember. Take care of each other.”

On Saturday morning, the cities of Windsor and Healdsburg were issued a mandatory evacuation. Despite the fire growing to 30,000 acres thanks to unprecedented wind gusts, fire personnel were able to keep the Kincade flames from extending into both communities overnight. As of Sunday morning, the fire remained 10 percent contained.

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But the wind gusts, which reached 80 mph through the night, has fire and city officials worried that embers could drift into neighboring towns. Smoke has already dusted several cities, residents told The Sacramento Bee.

“The idea was that if this fire were to jump (Highway) 101 and get on the west side of the freeway, with strong winds blowing toward the coast, there’d be no chance of stopping it,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. “Given the dense vegetation and the steep topography, that makes firefighting very challenging.”

The evacuation orders stretched along the Sonoma County coastline, touching smaller towns and cities that generally have one route to evacuate through. Scenic Highway 1, with its treacherous turns and narrow passages, is the only road serving many coastal towns.

Bodega Bay empty

“There’s really not evacuation alternatives or options,” said Patty Ginochio, owner of Ginochio’s Kitchen in Bodega Bay. “There’s one way in and one way out.”

Ginochio said her family-owned restaurant is operating on a generator to keep the food fresh, but many restaurants throughout the area aren’t so lucky.

She said she also volunteered to go door to door to alert residents Saturday that they needed to evacuate. Some of the residents were vacationers who didn’t have alerts set up on their phones, while others didn’t want to battle the clogged highways and figured they would be safer staying at home.

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“There are reports that the roads are so filled with cars, they didn’t think they would be able to get out of town and they said it would be best to stay where they are and not get stuck on the roads,” Ginochio explained. “Others were saying ‘Well the fires are so far away, why would we need to leave?’”

Other than traffic, some residents said they are struggling with finding a place to land. Hopkins said Sonoma County shelters are currently at capacity and officials are now directing evacuees to Marin. The evacuations are further exacerbated by PG&E blackouts, she said, because the power shutoffs make it harder to disseminate critical information electronically to residents.

Finding hotels that accept dogs

Blanca Threadgould said she and her husband evacuated their Santa Rosa home this morning around 5 or 6 a.m. with their two small dogs in tow. While the Holiday Inn Express Mill Valley advertises that it accepts dogs for a fee of $75, Threadgould said she was turned away after she arrived at the hotel.

“It’s rough. You have your dogs, you haven’t eaten, you’re tired because you haven’t slept the entire night and you get to the hotel and they say no,” Threadgould said. “Everything around my area is not available.”

Sheriff Mark Essick pushed back on suggestions on social media that the agency overreacted: “Our evacuation of Healdsburg and Windsor were well warranted.”

He added that his agency had 260 officers in the evacuation areas, buttressed by National Guardsmen, to keep evacuees’ homes safe. “Their property, their homes, will be safe,” he said. “We have not had any reports of looting.”

Tim Noyes, an assistant chief with the California Highway Patrol, said there have been no major accidents or other incidents during the evacuations so far. Highway 101 in the northern edge of the county, however, was just closed for a second time around the Dry Creek area because of “no visibility across the roadway due to heavy smoke.”

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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.