Kincade Fire at 119 square miles as Sonoma County braces for more gale-force winds

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Thousands of firefighters battling the Kincade Fire made good progress Tuesday in strengthening fire lines and protecting homes and businesses, but were bracing for a new onslaught of overnight winds that threatened to spawn new spot fires throughout Sonoma County’s famed wine country.

By 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Cal Fire said the blaze had grown to 76,138 acres and was 15 percent contained, and that clear weather through Tuesday morning had allowed firefighters to attack the 119-square mile blaze through the day.

But forecasters were predicting new, heavy winds would sweep through the area late in the day and continue until 2 a.m.

By 4 p.m. Tuesday, the National Weather Service had measured gusts as high as 52 mph at Mount St. Helena and 55 mph along Pine Flat Road – a hilly, narrow pathway popular with cyclists in Sonoma County when wildfires are not raging.

Some residents stand their ground

In Calistoga, which was issued an evacuation warning on Sunday as fire officials feared the blaze was moving toward town, the streets were largely empty on Tuesday.

But an evacuation advisory wasn’t enough to tear Gormeet Singh away from the checkout register at Calistoga Liquors.

Business had slowed considerably since Sunday, Singh said, but enough Cal fire employees came through for cold drinks, snacks and cigarettes to make it worth staying open.

Even during the Tubbs Fire in October 2017 – at the time the most destructive fire in California history – Singh remained at the liquor store as hills nearby were burning until an evacuation order came down.

“No, no, “ Singh said when asked if he would evacuate without a formal order. “It’s very hard, the loss of business.”

Wildlife, burning buildings dot the fire zone

Along Highway 128 outside of the town of Windsor, which so far has largely been spared from the blaze, the area was deserted Tuesday except for a deer that pranced through burned-out hills 100 yards away from where a wooden mountain house with a metal roof stood burning around 4 p.m.

Surrounded by pines and other trees, the house dropped ash into a creek below as firefighters called for more water.

As is often the case in wildland fires, some properties were spared while their neighbors’ perished.

The fire burned Chalk Hill Estate winery’s grounds but appeared to stop short of the vines themselves. Roth Estate Winery, a half-mile to the east, wasn’t so lucky, with much of the vineyard appearing to have burned.

Even structures on the same property at nearby Wright Ranch suffered different fates: the main house remained standing, while a nearby building was reduced to rubble.

So far, the fire has destroyed 189 structures, including 86 homes, and damaged 39 structure, 26 of them homes.

Luck saves some properties

Some of them have been saved through sheer luck.

On Monday, California Department of Fish and Wildlife officers noticed flames flaring up adjacent to the Stuhlmuller Vineyards near Healdsburg and flagged down a passing Long Beach Fire Department crew, the fish and wildlife agency reported in a Facebook post.

“The group walked up a steep section of the vineyard and saw the flames burning toward the vines,” the post said. “They called in support from two of California’s most powerful firefighting helicopters, Cal Fire’s Sikorsky Skycranes, (which) went to work and kept the fire from consuming the vineyard property.”

The fire, which sparked Oct. 23 and exploded over the weekend as gale-force winds swept across Northern California, forced the evacuation of as many as 190,000 people from Santa Rosa to the Pacific Coast. About 100,000 were still out of their homes Tuesday.

Winds force more power outages

Fears of the winds knocking down power lines also led to the third power shutdown by Pacific Gas & Electric in the past week, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without electricity.

Despite rumors spreading Tuesday that Sonoma County officials were preparing to escort people back into many evacuated areas, the sheriff’s office said it was not ready to make that move.

“RUMOR CONTROL,” the sheriff’s office tweeted at 3:20 p.m. “There are NO escorts into evac zones. Peace officers are focusing on keeping your neighborhood safe. Hang in there.”

Despite that, Sonoma Sheriff Mark Essick said the Dry Creek Valley area in the north county was lifted from evacuated zones and that 2,400 people were being allowed to return to that area.

Other areas were being patrolled by dozens of deputies and 200 National Guard members to prevent looting, but Essick said that authorities had received three reports of looting Tuesday.

“These are simply incidents where residents had discovered that in their absence their homes or businesses had been broken into and items had been taken,” the sheriff said, adding that three people also had been taken into custody for unlawful entry to evacuated areas.

Closed cities, post offices, schools

Regular city services and some schools were closed at evacuated towns, and some governments took extra efforts to deal with the blaze. The Town of Windsor moved its council meeting Monday night to a special meeting south at the Santa Rosa City Council chambers.

Special arrangements also were being made for mail pickup in affected areas.

Several post offices were forced to close, and the Postal Service was directing residents who normally use offices in Bodega Bay, Cazadero, Guerneville, Sebastopol and other affected areas to pick up and drop off their mail in Petaluma at the North Bay Processing Center at 1150 N. McDowell Road.

Getty Fire blamed on flying tree branch

The Kincade Fire and others burning throughout the state led to Gov. Gavin Newsom declaring a statewide emergency Sunday, one day before yet another blaze – the Getty Fire along Interstate 405 in Los Angeles – erupted and forced evacuations of residents and celebrities such as former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lakers star LeBron James, who sent a taco truck to feed firefighters.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power said Tuesday that fire investigators found “the fire was likely caused by a tree branch that broke off during the high wind conditions and landed on nearby power lines, which resulted in arcing and sparking that ignited nearby brush.”

“During the preliminary investigation, a dried Eucalyptus branch was found by investigators hanging from telecommunications lines located below LADWP power lines ...” the department said. “The branch is believed to have blown into LADWP wires from a tree located approximately 30 feet from the utility lines.

“This distance is outside of the vegetation clearance and setback distance required by state regulations. Based upon inspection of the location, there was no failure of electrical equipment involved. All wires and equipment, including the pole, remain fully intact.”

Officials warned that Santa Ana winds expected to roll into that area from 11 p.m. Tuesday through 6 p.m. Thursday were forcing the National Weather Service in Los Angeles to issue an “extreme red flag warning” with gusts of up to 80 mph possible.

Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.
Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.