Impact of Kincade fire in Sonoma County blunted by lessons from 2017 North Bay firestorm

Two years ago, authorities were caught flat-footed by the scale of the growing North Bay firestorm. After that disaster, the playbook for wildfires in Sonoma County was rewritten.|

When the Kincade fire burst to life in the rugged Mayacamas Mountains in north Sonoma County and began destroying people's homes, the indelible marks of earlier fires that wreaked havoc here were everywhere.

Two years ago, authorities were caught flat-footed by the scale of a growing disaster when people began frantically calling 911 to report fires igniting across the region on a night of battering winds. County officials had no plan to warn the sleeping public about fast-moving blazes despite dangerous weather predicted days in advance. They couldn't muster a big enough firefighting force to both get people out of harm's way and combat the flames.

But the playbook for wildfires in Sonoma County was rewritten after the 2017 October firestorm.

The wind controlled so much of what went wrong with the Kincade fire. Dry Diablo winds from the northeast hit the region the night the fire started Oct. 23, and then rose up again and again, assaults that came days apart, fueling the fire's explosive growth through bucolic forests and farmlands and toward Healdsburg and Windsor.

Gusts threatened to propel embers west across Highway 101 into forested communities that hadn't had a significant wildfire in decades and were ripe to burn.

New tactics put in place since 2017 in Sonoma County were central to what has gone right over the past week and a half, giving people the chance to get themselves out of harm's way and allowing firefighters the space to save homes in emptied neighborhoods and halt the fire's spread.

Even the controversial decision to evacuate a massive portion of the county from the fire's origin in the eastern mountains across 30 miles to the Sonoma Coast was rooted squarely in the dread that fire might deal such a blow as it did in 2017 when 24 people died and thousands more endured harrowing escapes.

“It was a different fire, but a lot of the threats were the same,” Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine said. But this time, he said, “We had no civilian fatalities - that's remarkable for a fire that has burned close to 80,000 acres.”

But firefighters and public officials were not the only people who learned from the calamity of 2017. With fresh memories of the devastation two years ago, Sonoma County residents were keenly aware of the destruction a fast-moving wildfire could cause. They were vigilant when the risks were greatest and responded quickly and calmly when ordered to evacuate.

“The community played a major role,” Heine said. “They prepared their homes. They cleared defensible space. They paid attention to what they could do. They heeded our evacuation orders.”

The losses haven't yet been tallied from the Kincade fire, which ripped through working ranches and vineyards, destroyed 175 homes and burned across more than 120 square miles. And it is not yet extinguished, though firefighters had the fire about 74% contained Sunday. Most of the area yet to be contained lies on the fire's eastern front, which is sparsely populated and rugged.

The economic impact for nearly 200,000 people forced to pack up and leave, halting commerce and shorting paychecks for the better part of a week has yet to be calculated. It is no doubt a significant loss for many.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick issued the first evacuation order about an hour after the fire started for the town of Geyserville, and he would issue a succession of evacuation orders over the next several days that would cover a vast swath of the county. Essick said he made those decisions collaboratively with fire and county officials, fire behavior experts and those with eyes into the firefight on the ground.

Complicating his decision: PG&E had cut power for about 27,000 homes and businesses in Sonoma County the night the fire broke out. On the weekend when residents in larger cities including Santa Rosa, Windsor and Healdsburg were evacuated, a new shut-off affected about 93,000 PG&E customers in the county.

When the fire started, the utility had not shut off its high-voltage transmission lines, including one that malfunctioned in the location where Cal Fire said the fire started, according to a report PG&E filed with state regulators. Cal Fire is still investigating what caused the fire.

Communicating effectively to thousands of residents without electricity meant many might not have charged cellphones or working telephones and internet.

Essick said that while he doesn't believe it was necessary to evacuate all of those areas, particularly Bodega Bay, public officials did not have time to make more precise orders while the fire posed such an immediate threat to so many.

“I trusted Cal Fire and I still think it was the right decision to evacuate that area,” Essick said.

Going forward, he said his office will develop evacuation zones that will allow them to quickly piece together strategic portions of the county for emergency orders and limit unnecessary impacts.

Much of Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins' district spanning from Forestville to the coast was evacuated although the Kincade's flames never got there. Hopkins stands by the decision to get people out, saying she too feared the wind could send an ember into her district where so many had no electricity - or phone and Internet service - because of a planned power shutdown by PG&E and may not receive public warnings. Many live on one-way-out roads.

“We were very fortunate, this time, to have time,” Hopkins said, adding that “our notification system worked.”

Numbers tell part of the story.

The Tubbs fire was most destructive in its first four hours when it ignited near Calistoga and burned through the Mark West drainage and into Santa Rosa, destroying about 4,650 homes and killing 22 people in Sonoma County. It was just one of about a half-dozen major wildfires that broke out the night of Oct. 8, 2017, across Northern California, causing widespread destruction and 38 additional deaths. Insured losses nearly hit $9.5 billion.

The firefight didn't begin that first night because the mission was to rescue people fleeing amid flames. Sonoma County fire officials frantically requested additional resources through the state Office of Emergency Services. But the response was slow, hampered by distance and demands from other major fires in Napa, Lake, Mendocino and Yolo counties. Fewer than half of the 170 additional fire engines requested arrived in the first 12 hours.

The night the Kincade fire started had the makings of a similar calamity. Forests were still parched after years of drought. Wind gusts were predicted to hit 60 mph. Significant portions of Northern California's electric infrastructure remained in disrepair, posing one of the greatest threats for sparking fires. The winds picked up at night when many were asleep or getting ready for bed.

The first emergency dispatch went out about 9:26 p.m. Fire was burning in The Geysers, a remote complex of geothermal energy facilities in the mountains between Sonoma and Lake counties.

There already were 20 extra engine crews standing guard throughout the county, completely set apart from regular firehouse duties and ready to respond to a wildfire because of the hazardous conditions.

In that first radio broadcast, dispatchers asked 10 engines to go, and more flooded into the area as the fire burned out of control and charged down the steep slopes into the Alexander Valley.

As the fire grew rapidly, a network of wildfire cameras installed in 2018 allowed anyone with internet access to monitor the conflagration live on their computers and smartphones.

One hour after that first report of flames, Essick ordered the evacuation of Geyserville and the north part of Alexander Valley. About 15 minutes later, he sent an emergency alert to all cellphones in the area in English and Spanish ordering people to leave. His predecessor, Rob Giordano, had far fewer tools to warn the public two years ago, and the county emergency managers who did were out of town.

“We have the key to the system now,” Essick said. “I don't have to wait for some other public safety official and get caught in bureaucracy. If I think the county is threatened, I can push that button and warn people.”

After daybreak, Cal Fire had 34 aircraft assigned to the fire, dropping water and fire retardant on the blaze, according to Tom Swanson, air operation branch director at Cal Fire's air attack base on the north side of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. Swanson said few other major fires were burning at the time, so they had little competition for resources.

“All the aircraft we were requesting we were getting,” Swanson said “We were able tactically to put the retardant and the water drops at the right place at the right time.”

The firefighting force would swell to 3,000 bodies one week ago Sunday morning when wind gusts exceeded 90 mph, sending the fire down again from the mountains back into Alexander Valley, burning through Chalk Hill Road and into Windsor's outskirts

Propelled by strong winds that rose again, the fire came at Windsor from multiple directions, sending flames into properties along Los Amigos Road to the immediate east of Highway 101 and into Foothill Regional Park abutting a dense neighborhood.

A massive firefighting force pulled from across the region and led by a local contingent kept the fire from spreading into towns and cities, which would have allowed the fire to get hotter and spread more quickly from home to home. And if the fire had crossed the highway, it would have entered forests that haven't burned in about four decades, according to Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox.

“I am so relieved to be where we are with this fire today,” Heine said. “In Windsor, standing out on the front lines at Arata Lane, I was not confident that our firefighting efforts would be able to hold it at the highway.”

But they did.

And they did it again Tuesday when the third major windstorm arrived again. More than 4,500 firefighters were involved in battling the Kincade fire. On the fire's southwestern front, a group of about 90 local firefighters led the firefight when the blaze headed toward the Larkfield, Wikiup and Mark West Springs Road area in north Santa Rosa, neighborhoods still rebuilding after the 2017 fires.

It was crucial for the firefighters that the neighborhoods had been evacuated. If people had been home, their attention would have been on getting them out.

“It's a totally different experience when you don't have the voices and sounds of animals and humans in the background as you're facing down a fire,” Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox said. “It allows firefighters to be offensive instead of defensive and focused solely on saving lives.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the road where firefighters prevented the fire from crossing Highway 101 in Windsor. It was Los Amigos Road.

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