Strong, dry winds whipped up a major, late-season wildfire in the remote hills of northeastern Sonoma County on Friday, burning 2,500 acres by nighttime and damaging a geothermal power plant while prompting energy workers in the area to evacuate in the face of advancing flames.
About 340 firefighters from more than a dozen local departments and the state were battling the blaze in The Geysers, a large geothermal energy field along the Sonoma-Lake county border.
Dubbed the McCabe fire, it was burning in Sonoma County toward Lake County, and it was about 10percent contained at the last report at 6 p.m.
A Cal Fire spokesman said that other than power-plant facilities, he was not aware of any structures that were threatened. Sheriff's deputies were checking cabins and other properties in the area, but they were found to be unoccupied and no evacuation order was given.
No injuries were reported.
The McCabe fire was one of two large wildland blazes in Wine Country that took off amid gusts and ripped through tinder-dry brush and forest. The other was a 300-acre fire that forced the evacuation of about 50 homes in the hills northeast of Napa. Residents were allowed back into the area Friday evening.
A number of smaller blazes kept firefighters across the region busy Friday as steady reports of toppled trees and downed power lines strained the reach of utility crews.
The McCabe fire was burning in the same range of hills where flames spread over 12,500 acres in 2004, consuming six cabins. Yet that fire was in September, often the peak of California's fire season, while the current blaze comes at the start of the wet season and on the heels of a light rainstorm this week.
Firefighting veterans said it illustrated how a combination of a prolonged drought and historically dry fuels plus erratic winds could spark extreme fire behavior, even in November. Reports from the McCabe fire described flames as "crowning," racing to the tops of brush and trees as if it were August.
"It's almost Thanksgiving, and they're fighting a fire where it would be like summertime and 100 degrees," said Santa Rosa Fire Division Chief Ken Sebastiani. "That's a tough one."
Bob Benjamin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the winds that swept the region Thursday night and early Friday reached 50 mph at times. They weakened hours later, with peak gusts around 30 mph reported at mid-afternoon. But by that time the wind had fanned flames on wildlands, vineyard properties and along roadsides throughout Sonoma County. The fire conditions, which triggered a red-flag warning from the National Weather Service for the North Bay and interior valleys, are set to persist through this morning.
The McCabe fire was first reported about 2 a.m. Friday. It grew rapidly in size after 7 a.m., when it was reported at 100 acres and was 10 percent contained. Before noon, it was reported at 500 acres, and two hours later it had grown to 1,500 acres with no containment, according to incident reports relayed through the Geyserville Fire Protection District's Twitter feed.
It burned in steep, rugged terrain covered by oak woodland and grassland. About 3:30 p.m., with almost three dozen engines already assigned to the fire, a call for 20 more engines — carrying 60 more firefighters — went out.