When the rampaging Valley fire branched off early last Sunday, sending flames roaring into the Geysers area of northeastern Sonoma County, the stage was set for another catastrophe on par with a 1964 inferno that still burns in local memory for all who felt its devilish wrath.
Similar to the Hanly fire, the southwestern flank of the Valley conflagration advanced through The Geysers last Sunday with the aid of strong winds and bone-dry vegetation. When it became apparent the blaze was intent on cresting the Mayacmas Mountains and sweeping farther into Sonoma County, Cal Fire dispatched about 20 firefighters to the mountain to make a stand.
Officials said the small force was all they could muster, given the amount of resources needed to battle flames threatening lives and property in Lake County. But if the Mayacmas crew failed in its mission, the potential existed for the Valley fire to dramatically expand in Sonoma County, with flames racing toward Healdsburg and other communities.
“We understood if we didn’t get it stopped, it would continue to march down Pine Flat Road,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville, who led part of the team on the mountain.
The Valley fire, which as of Sunday had consumed 75,700 acres and was 69 percent contained, is a searing reminder of the fire dangers that exist in Sonoma County, which just like its neighbor is suffering after four years of a drought that has considerably amped up the threat level.
“It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s ‘when,’ ” Turbeville said.
He spoke those words three days before the Valley fire exploded. Turbeville had driven up steep and winding Pine Flat Road to survey the remains of a home that was destroyed in a 2004 Geysers fire and to discuss present and future fire risks in the area.
He predicted the region’s next major conflagration would be a “horrific event” lasting about four to six hours. He said it would be “one bad afternoon,” which is also the title of a presentation the battalion chief gives about blazes.
While the massive fire that broke out in Lake County three days later has lasted considerably longer than a few hours, the worst damage and loss of life appears to have occurred that first afternoon, as Turbeville said it would.
A similar scenario could easily play out in Sonoma County, fire officials say.
Santa Rosa’s eastern hills are one focus of concern, in particular the exclusive Alta Vista neighborhood and adjacent Montecito Heights, Hidden Valley and Brush Creek neighborhoods. As the basis for their concern, officials cite the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm that burned across 1,520 acres, killed 25 people and destroyed 2,843 single-family dwellings.
“We have a very clear potential for an Oakland Hills fire,” said Jack Piccinini, a Santa Rosa fire battalion chief. “It’s homes built in the hills, surrounded by eucalyptus, oak and cypress. The roads are narrow.”
Other areas drawing heightened attention in Sonoma County include the Mayacmas Mountains along the eastern edge of Sonoma Valley, the grasslands northwest of Petaluma, populated areas north of Santa Rosa in the Riebli-Wallace neighborhood, pockets in west Sonoma County where sudden oak death has been prevalent and the Palomino Lakes community in Cloverdale.
Fire officials stressed that they aren’t trying to be alarmist by naming places that cause them particular worry, or to make residents who live in those areas feel more vulnerable than they may already. The reality is that after a fourth year of drought, there are few places in Sonoma County that are immune to fire danger.