The death toll continued its grim rise Friday across three counties, including Sonoma, where firefighters made progress in their fifth day battling unpredictable and dangerous blazes threatening communities stretching from Geyserville in the north to eastern Santa Rosa and Sonoma in the south.
The daytime firefight played out under a foreboding blanket of thick gray smoke that spread south across the entire Bay Area, turning the air fouler than it’s ever been. By nightfall, winds were predicted to pick up under deteriorating conditions, with forecast gusts of up to 50 mph — the strongest since the wind-whipped firestorm that began Sunday night.
As many as 50,000 people in Sonoma County — 10 percent of the population — remained under evacuation orders.
Nineteen people have been reported dead in the county and 35 overall in four Northern California counties ravaged by wildfire since last weekend. In Mendocino County, eight people have died, and the number of victims in Napa and Yuba counties rose to four each on Friday. Together, the disaster amounts to the deadliest group of wildfires in state history.
Despite the major gains made by firefighters Friday, the expected winds could pose peril for urban and rural areas across the region. By 10:30 p.m., firefighters were still bracing for the winds’ anticipated arrival.
“They’re saying it’s going to be different at 3 a.m.,” said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who is helping manage the county’s fires. “I’m hoping our meteorologist is wrong.”
Gov. Jerry Brown, joined by California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, was set to visit Sonoma County this afternoon.
The fires burning in Sonoma County and stretching into neighboring counties Friday night totaled 92,370 acres.
Buildings under threat
Throughout the county, the fires threaten 33,943 buildings. More than 2,800 homes have been destroyed in Santa Rosa alone, according to the city.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said the Tubbs fire that burned through the city on Monday morning destroyed nearly 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock and caused at least $1.2 billion in damage. It has scorched 35,270 acres and continued to move north from Napa County into southern Lake County. Containment was at 44 percent.
“It’s everywhere. Nobody escaped,” said Marrianne McBride, CEO of Sonoma County’s Council on Aging, where at least six employees lost homes in the fire. “If you didn’t personally lose your home, you have people who are close to you that did.”
Nuns fire the largest
The largest fire in Sonoma County, the Nuns fire, continued to burn on both sides of Sonoma Valley. At the north end, firefighters lit a backfire near Trione-Annadel State Park to halt the fire’s forward progress. At the south end, crews continued their work to protect the eastern edge of Sonoma, where an advisory evacuation remained in place.
At the end of the day, the fire had burned 46,000 acres, an increase of 2,500 acres, but fronts in Bennett Valley and Oakmont largely held on Friday. Containment was at 10 percent.
Susan Gardner parked along the nearly empty Highway 12 Friday afternoon, anxiously eying the closure at Madrone Road that blocked her from reaching her Kenwood home. Like many others, she fled in a hurry days earlier, escaping with her cat and some clothes through a firestorm that rained embers on her car.