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