Fires

Kincade Fire forces evacuations and burns 100 square miles, as containment drops to 5%

»» Latest updates on the Kincade Fire and others around the state can be found here.

Fueled by wind gusts of up to 75 miles per hour, Northern California’s persistent Kincade Fire continued its roll into Monday morning, burning 100 square miles of the state’s famed Wine Country region and forcing evacuations of 180,000 residents in dozens of towns, including Healdsburg and Santa Rosa as well as coastal areas.

Those evacuations remained in place Monday morning, as more than 4,000 fire crews battled the new five-day-old blaze. Winds were expected to lessen this morning, giving firefighters a chance to gain some control. Winds, however, will pick up again Tuesday afternoon.

“A Red Flag warning will continue through Monday morning,” Cal Fire reported, with 40-50 mile per hour gusts possible throughout the day.

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The wildfire, which ignited in the hills near Geyserville, has left 96 destroyed and at least 16 damaged structures in its wake — including the iconic Soda Rock Winery near Healdsburg that was housed in a building erected in 1869.

By Monday morning, the fire’s reach had increased from 30,000 acres in the morning to more than 66,000 acres, almost all of it in Sonoma County. As the fire grew, firefighters’ containment of its edges dropped from 10 percent in the morning to 5 percent by nightfall.

More than 3,400 individuals were working the fire, which has become the most destructive blaze of the year in Northern California, and showed no signs of slowing Sunday evening.

“It’s looking pretty ugly out there right now,” Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said Sunday near nightfall.

Kincade Fire remains the most stubborn challenge that we face and is immediately of top priority and focus,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom during a Sunday evening press conference. “We’re trying to hold the line at Highway 101, in and around the town of Windsor.”

There are no reported deaths, but two firefighters were burned Sunday, one of them seriously. That firefighter was airlifted to a burn center in Sacramento.

The blaze forced mass evacuations on a scale that has not been seen in California since February 2017, amid fears that the Oroville Dam north of Sacramento might fail during torrential downpours. Sonora County officials said the fire remained dangerous heading into the night, and that all evacuations remained in place.

The heavy smoke and turbulent air hindered firefighters’ ability to stage aerial attacks with air tankers and helicopters at times, McLean said.

“It’s not like black and white,” McLean said. “We can have them up in orbit and when they get a golden opportunity they can come down and drop their loads.”

Firefighters on the ground took a stand at the edge of Windsor on Sunday when flames approached during what appeared to be the day’s most dramatic moment.

“Amazing job to stop the fire before it entered the town,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said. “The efforts there have been very valiant.”

The coming days will not be easy, Cal Fire officials said. Renewed winds on Tuesday night are likely to fuel the fire again.

Millions without electricity

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.

PG&E announced it is considering shutting off the lights again, starting Tuesday, as forecasters predict strong winds will resume.

The utility cited predictions of “a high risk of significant fires for a geographical footprint that covers much of PG&E’s service area.”

It said it could black out customers in portions of 32 counties: Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Glenn, Humboldt, Kern, Lake, Marin, Mariposa, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Solano, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Tehama, Trinity, Tuolumne, Yolo, Yuba.

Newsom said the blackouts further exacerbated evacuation efforts and has created an environment “even more anxiety-inducing and potentially life-threatening.”

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.

Although there were reports that the winds had begun tapering off slightly in the fire area, National Weather Service forecaster Ryan Walburn said the weather was still erratic. Wind gusts of 70 mph or more were still being reported at elevations of 3,000 feet.

“Things will improve as we head into Monday and Tuesday,” he said, though another bout of strong winds could develop sometime Tuesday.

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. I-80 was closed for several hours between Vallejo and Crockett because of brush fires raging at both ends of the Carquinez Bridge, but reopened by mid-afternoon.

That interstate also was shut down in Sacramento along with Interstate 5, the main north-south artery through the state, because of a brush fire in Sacramento. Both roadways later reopened.

Highways 101 and 128 also were closed and reopened at different times as smoke and flames made passage dangerous.

More than 3,000 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, but destroyed or damaged rural homes and wineries in the area.

In Healdsburg on Sunday morning, Frank Vos and a friend were standing in Vos’ front yard along Powell Avenue looking east at the huge plume of smoke behind the hills.

Vos said he decided not to evacuate overnight, reasoning that he would see flames burning the hillsides in time to get to safety.

“We’d be able to see the flames on the mountain and have enough time to get out,” Vos said.

Firefighters battled the blaze around Windsor and Healdsburg throughout the day Sunday, and by late in the day the biggest threat appeared to be fires burning east of Windsor.

Firefighters attacking spot fires in east Windsor near Foothill Regional Park beat back flames threatening homes Sunday afternoon, Windsor police Chief Ruben Martinez said.

“There’s still fire, but firefighters did an outstanding job holding the line by the foothill park,” Martinez said. “None of the homes were lost, but there was damage.”

Martinez said the town was blanketed with smoke Sunday afternoon and “I don’t even know where the fire is at.” But, he added, he was hopeful firefighters will maintain their defenses around the town.

Iconic winery destroyed

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.”

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 fuel-laden land that has 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.”

In addition to evacuating residents, Sonoma sheriff’s officials removed inmates from the North County Detention Facility in Santa Rosa Saturday night and took them to the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County.

The main jail in Santa Rosa was not evacuated, although visiting was canceled.

Responding to questions on whether the mass evacuations were necessary, Newsom said, “We’re not here to dream of regretting.

“Evacuations save lives. These guys are experts. World class. I listen to the experts. These guys have been at it for years and years.”

Evacuation centers jammed to capacity

Some of 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 on 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 where 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.”

The Petaluma Community Center shelter also was filled to capacity Sunday.

Jerry Overstreet, 76, a 56-year resident of a home in Sebastopol, was resting there Sunday after he said he woke at 5 a.m. to the sound of police beating on his door.

“The police said, ‘You gotta go!’” Overstreet said.

He and his wife and granddaughter were able to get out with their two dogs, medication and important documents, then got stuck “in the biggest traffic jam of your life.”

The experience was a first for the family, he said.

The Kincade Fire was the main focus Sunday, but at times it seemed almost as it the entire north state was under siege.

Evacuations were ordered at various times of the day in Contra Costa and Mendocino counties, and numerous wind-whipped blazes were reported in Sacramento, Rancho Cordova, Yolo County and Grass Valley.

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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.
Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.
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