Fast-moving wildfire rips through California wine country, forces 180,000 to evacuate

Fueled by wind gusts of up to 70 mph, Northern California’s Kincade Fire had burned more than 47 square miles of the state’s famed Wine Country region Sunday and forced evacuations of 180,000 residents from Santa Rosa to the Pacific Ocean.

At least 93 structures had been damaged or destroyed — including the iconic Soda Rock Winery near Healdsburg that was housed in a building erected in 1869. The 30,000-acre fire was only 10 percent contained.

No one has been reported killed or injured, but the blaze forced mass evacuations on a scale that has not been seen in California since February 2017, when fears that the Oroville Dam north of Sacramento might fail during torrential downpours.

More than 2 million people in parts of 36 counties were left without electricity after Pacific Gas & Electric Co. shut off power to more than 940,000 homes and businesses in advance of wind storms that swept into the region late Saturday, an effort to prevent downed power lines from sparking new blazes.

Wind gusts were expected to continue at least through late Monday morning, and the National Weather Service measured velocities as high as 103 mph near the Lake Tahoe area Saturday night.

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency because of what his office called “the effects of unprecedented high-wind events which have resulted in fires and evacuations across the state.”

“We are deploying every resource available, and are coordinating with numerous agencies as we continue to respond to these fires,” Newsom said. “It is critical that people in evacuation zones heed the warnings from officials and first responders, and have the local and state resources they need as we fight these fires.”

Freeways closed throughout California

The Kincade Fire and other blazes that erupted Sunday during the heavy winds closed several major roadways, including Interstate 80, the main east-west highway through Northern California between San Francisco and the Nevada state line. Interstate 5, the main artery through the state was closed briefly because of a brush fire in Sacramento.

More than 2,800 fire personnel were assigned to battle the Kincade Fire, which was burning in the Alexander Valley and near the towns of Healdsburg and Windsor. The fire did not enter either community by Sunday afternoon, but destroyed or damaged homes and wineries in the area.

Near the ashes of the Soda Rock Winery outside Healdsburg, volunteer firefighters from Nevada County were making a stand early Sunday along Highway 128 trying to protect homes adjacent to the structure.

Daniel Ramey, a firefighter with the Peardale Chicago Park Fire Protection District, said teams were spraying homes to protect them from burning embers swirling through the darkness.

The winery had burned earlier as winds swept through the area.

“It got lit earlier today when we had those high winds and embers flying, and now we’re just trying to keep it to that area,” Ramey said. “After we lost that structure we don’t want to lose any more.

“We have a lot of ground to cover. We’re assigned to these homes. We know that people live here, they trust us, and we’re going to do our best for them.”

Trees catch fire on Pine Flat Road near McDonald Road as the Kincade Fire burns outside of Healdsburg as winds pick up Saturday night, Oct. 26, 2019. Jason Pierce

Mass evacuations ordered

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for communities as far west as the coastal towns of Bodega Bay and Jenner, and Cal Fire officials said they were concerned that the fire would jump Highway 128 into areas west of the roadway that have not burned in decades.

Those areas haven’t burned since the 1940s and “the fuels in that area are extremely dense ... and they’re extremely dry,” said Stephen Volmer, a fire behavior analyst with Cal Fire.

Spot fires fed by the winds were erupting throughout the day in Sonoma County, where new evacuation orders were being issued.

“If you have not evacuated, you NEED to do so now!” the sheriff’s office tweeted, adding reassurance that residents’ property will be safe while they are displaced.

“We have 262 peace officers making sure your property is safe,” the office tweeted. “No reports of looting. Hang in there.”

Some of the evacuation centers set up at fairgrounds, churches and colleges were filled to capacity by Sunday morning.

At the Petaluma Veterans Building, which also was at capacity Sunday, Henry Thienes and his daughter, Emma, were outside after evacuating from the outskirts of Windsor Saturday with other members of their family and four dogs, three cats and close to 60 cockatiels and parrots.

They said the shelter was jammed packed overnight to the point people were sleeping in chairs against the wall because there weren’t enough cots.

They decided to try to catch a few hours of sleep in their vehicles so they could be with their animals instead.

Henry Thienes, 77, said the worst part was not knowing whether his home still stood.

“That’s what’s scary,” he said. “Your whole family history could be lost. All your heirlooms, your pictures, everything.”

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Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.
Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.