Unpredictable wildfires prompted new evacuation orders and advisories Wednesday for thousands of residents in Sonoma and Napa counties as shifting winds frustrated firefighters attempting for a third day to get a handle on deadly blazes, which under windier conditions once again threatened more urban areas.
Flames encroached on the historic town of Sonoma, prompting crews to plow a protective barrier around the historic General Vallejo home and sending deputies with loudspeakers to the central plaza, shouting warnings to leave.
In Calistoga, police went door to door, ordering the town’s 5,000 residents to get out. The escape for some was along roads walled by flames. Late Wednesday, the city was the only community in the region entirely under a mandatory evacuation order.
Firefighters attacked trouble spots in eastern Santa Rosa — in Bennett Valley, Oakmont and Trione-Annadel State Park, which together generated a towering plume that could be seen late Wednesday across the Bay Area.
To the north, residents of Geyserville evacuated as firefighters braced for a tough battle into the night on a blaze burning in the Mayacamas Mountains.
Among the biggest fears was that one or more of the fires could merge amid overnight winds, creating a monster inferno.
“There are number of fires burning out of control right now,” said Todd Derum, division chief for Cal Fire’s Sonoma County division. “All of them have a potential to grow together.”
The exact paths of the 11 fires in Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Solano and Mendocino counties was uncertain. Together they burned nearly 140,000 acres and claimed at least 23 lives, 13 of which happened in the Tubbs fire that ripped into Santa Rosa from Calistoga early Monday, destroying thousands of homes and businesses. An active finger of the 31,000-acre Tubbs fire continued to burn east of Windsor, from Shiloh ridge to Chalk Hill Road and Knights Valley.
29,000 homes threatened
In that fire alone, more than 29,000 homes, most in Santa Rosa, remained under threat, according to Cal Fire. More than 570 structures have been destroyed.
“There are a ton of houses out there,” Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Mark Basque said. “This is an unprecedented event.”
The largest fire in the region was the Atlas fire, mostly in Napa County, which consumed more than 42,000 acres.
Containment for most remained at or near zero. Their causes remain undetermined.
Jittery residents from Rohnert Park to Ukiah hosed down rooftops and packed cars with suitcases in preparation for the worst. As they did, a northeast breeze kicked up, scattering dry leaves and shattering nerves. Gusts up to 50 mph were expected.
“I suspect tonight is going to be busy,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said. “The wind’s really scaring everyone.”
Firefighters responding to Gov. Jerry Brown’s emergency declaration converged on the region from across the West, joined by police from around Northern California and National Guard troops.
Some watched over desolate, ash-covered neighborhoods as displaced occupants huddled in temporary shelters. Five people were arrested in Sonoma County on suspicion of looting, authorities said.
Shelters in Santa Rosa were at two-thirds capacity.
Four fires raged in the Sonoma Valley alone, threatening communities from multiple directions, taking out part of Glen Ellen and Kenwood and leveling some homes in Oakmont. Among those who lost their homes was Susan Gorin, the county supervisor representing Sonoma Valley and east Santa Rosa.
Wine crop threatened
Vineyards at Gundlach Bundschu winery were torched and vintners throughout the wine industry worried about smoke taint.
“If you have grapes hanging on the vine and it is smothered in ash and smoke it will pick up taint,” said Healdsburg winemaker Rick Moshin. “It’s a concern now.”
On Valetti Drive near the Sonoma Charter School, 5-year-old Alexa Vasquez, wearing a mask over her nose and mouth, brought a bag of Legos to her father. Francisco Vasquez, 33, took the toys and added them to bags of clothing and a stroller to be stowed in their SUV.
One-year-old Victoria was napping inside as the family prepared to go, although they weren’t sure which direction to head.
“It started getting freaky. They started closing, closing, closing road after road,” Francisco Vasquez said.
Helicopters doused burning woodlands in Bennett and Sonoma valleys while air tankers dropped red retardant on the Pocket fire near Geyserville.
Backfire generates plume
A large plume of smoke over southeast Santa Rosa late Wednesday afternoon was part of a backfire operation, to slow the spread of a blaze threatening Bennett Valley, said Bennett Valley Battalion Chief Darren DeCarli. With the fire slowly advancing toward Annadel Heights and Bennett Valley, firefighters Wednesday used bulldozers to cut 30-foot-wide swath through the brush and curving around homes. The line stretched some miles, from Lake Ilsanjo high up in Annadel to close to the Bennett Valley fire house.
After firefighters lit it, “favorable winds” carried it into the park, burning off grasses, weeds and brush and creating a strong line against the advancing fire.
The large backfire caught some fire officials by surprise as they hadn’t been told it was coming.
Fighting fire with fire, crews pushed through the night to keep an advancing blaze out of Oakmont, the large retirement community of about 4,500 residents on Santa Rosa’s eastern outskirts.
The community abuts Annadel park, bringing the upper elevation streets into the wildland area — beautiful, old oak woodlands that now add to the fire danger.
A crew of Petaluma firefighters rested at a property on Wild Oak Drive as lingering smoke smoldered on the steep drainage between an expansive house and the woods.
Strong Oakmont response
They were part of a small task force of five engines pulled together late Tuesday when it became clear fire activity was increasing around Oakmont.
The canyon burned overnight but they were able to protect homes because the understory was mowed — providing essential defensible space.
“You can’t manage the wind, but you can manage the (vegetation) fuel and you can manage the water,” said Petaluma firefighter Marty Ferina, a Santa Rosa native.
In Calistoga, portions of the town were evacuated in the morning. Calls for complete evacuation came around 3 p.m.
At that point, law enforcement officers began knocking on doors.
They suggested residents leave but did not demand it. The officers spray-painted symbols on the sidewalk or street outside of houses — “O’s” at empty homes, “V’s” if they were occupied.
By 5 p.m., Calistoga was eerily empty except for emergency personnel and members of the media. Mike Johnson estimated 1 in 10 of his neighbors had declined to go. Johnson, his daughter Joan Boyadjieff and her two young children were sticking it out, at least until things got worse.
“I’ve been on every inch of those mountains, walked all those ridges,” Johnson said, gesturing toward the smoking foothills at the base of Mount St. Helena. “I know that a very large percentage of what’s there is not flammable anymore.”
At the corner of Oak and Grant streets was a handwritten sign that read, “Firefighters please save our home! Here’s some food for you!” It was signed April, Jason and Preston. Next to the sign was a folding table bearing peanuts, dried fruit snacks and Kashi bars.
In Geyserville, the 1,800-acre Pocket fire, threatened the town’s 800-plus residents and the nearby River Rock Casino along Highway 128.
The fire jumped containment lines east of Geyserville and was moving south toward Moody Lane and Highway 128,
Local resident Tom Higgins, standing on the Highway 128 bridge over the Russian River outside Geyserville, had just returned from his third trip removing items from his Alexander Valley home. He said he’d hosed down his roof multiple times.
“I feel like we’ve done as much as we can,” Higgins said. “It’s really a function of the wind at this point.”
By nightfall, orders covering Geyserville had been downgraded to an advisory evacuation.
An advisory order was also issued for residents of northeast Santa Rosa as far west as Mendocino Avenue at Lomitas Avenue and spanning south and east from Franklin Avenue at Chanate Road.
At the same time, deadly fires in Lake and Mendocino counties continued to rage.
Three additional deaths from the Redwood Valley fire were reported Wednesday by sheriff’s officials in Mendocino County, bringing the current total there to six deaths.
Children feared dead
Sheriff Tom Allman has said the numbers of deaths were expected to include children, and fire officials have indicated at least some of the deaths involved people trying to flee when the fire raced down a ridge into the area in the middle of the night. All of the deaths occurred in Redwood Valley.
The fire, which stretches from Redwood Valley north of Ukiah through Potter Valley toward Willits has grown to almost 30,000 acres. Most of the damage has been in Redwood Valley, but Wednesday the fire made a push further into Potter Valley and officials called for mandatory evacuations, said Koby Johns, Cal Fire spokesman.
How many homes fell inside the new evacuation order wasn’t available. Redwood Valley remains under mandatory evacuation orders. Fire officials suspect the cause of the Redwood and Potter valleys fire involved wind and a broken power line.
Fire officials managing that firefight also are supervising a smaller fire in Lake County near Clearlake, south of Highway 20. That fire, known as the Sulphur fire, burned about 2,500 acres and destroyed several homes. An exact number wasn’t available Wednesday.
Between both fires, a tally of lost homes so far had reached 250 as well as 90 outbuildings such as sheds and workshops.
Wednesday there were almost 1,000 people working the two fires, which in Mendocino County included areas so steep and rugged firefighters mainly have to hike in and cut through brush by hand, Johns said.
Staff Writers J.D. Morris and Nick Rahaim contributed reporting.