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Massive firefighting force blocks Kincade fire from ravaging Santa Rosa area — again

Each day since the Kincade fire ignited nearly a week ago deep in the Mayacamas Mountains in northern Sonoma County and tore down steep slopes has been a fight to save homes.

There already had been painful losses and significant saves four days into the firefight at historic ranches and vineyard properties in the Alexander Valley, communities along Chalk Hill Road, the eastern banks of the Russian River near Healdsburg and on the northern edge of a dense Windsor subdivision abutting Foothill Regional Park.

But Sunday night, the firefight became a deeply personal battle for Sonoma County firefighters.

The winds again rose, fanning flames and sending the Kincade fire roaring like a freight train into Shiloh Estates and toward Wikiup, Larkfield and the Mark West Springs corridor, Santa Rosa communities still rebuilding from the 2017 Tubbs wildfire.

The threat triggered an “all call” tone Sonoma County's main dispatch center never had used before. The call was for every fire district to send whatever it could to join the already enormous firefighting force preparing to make a stand.

“No matter how tired we were, no matter how overwhelmed we were, we were going to throw everything we had at it,” Sonoma County Battalion Chief Fire Marshal Cyndi Foreman said.

Two years ago, Foreman was among the ranks of firefighters and law enforcement evacuating residents from the neighborhood already ablaze during the terrifying siege of the Tubbs fire. All told, Larkfield-Wikiup and Mark West Springs lost more than 1,700 homes, mostly on that first night in October 2017.

The differences this time were profound: Residents had warning and were ordered days ago to get out and most had. And the firefighting commanders at war with the Kincade fire had time to plan.

Studying weather models and fire behavior science they anticipated where the fire would go when the winds picked up again after dark. And they had access to some of the thousands of firefighters dispatched from across California and beyond to join the local force.

That afternoon, they already had led an exhausting daylong mission to protect the dense neighborhood near Foothill Regional Park in Windsor.

They saved all but two homes plus several other properties damaged and prevented the fire from setting into a neighborhood that could have built enough fiery momentum for the blaze to shoot across Highway 101 and west, as officials had feared, into the densely forested west county, Foreman said.

The exhausted crews - many deployed at the fire line since the blaze ignited Wednesday - were sent back to the Sonoma County fairgrounds or local stations to get some rest.

After dark on Shiloh Ridge Road, a team of firefighters were building firebreaks with bulldozers and lighting strategic fires to burn up some of the most fire-prone fuels in the hilly, wooded area on Santa Rosa's northern outskirts.

The wind picked up, and a flank of the fire jumped Leslie Road and headed toward Shiloh Ridge, getting more intense and setting tall trees ablaze, changing the mission from back fires to protecting homes and buildings amid the roaring, chugging sound of the coming inferno.

Sonoma County fire apprentice Billy Leuenberger began putting out spot fires with a hand tool but fire began erupting all around, making what had been effective against smaller spot fires a futile effort.

“It was pouring ember casts like pouring rain,” Leuenberger recalled. “I jumped into a vehicle, and my partner jumped in and we went down the hill as fast as we could.”

That eruption was just one part of the fire growth Sunday night that triggered the “all hands on deck” order about 10 p.m. The direct threat led authorities to broadcast a redundant evacuation order for Wikiup, Larkfield and Mark West - emphasizing the urgent request that people get out.

The mission was to keep the fire out of Shiloh Regional Park and north Santa Rosa and protect as many Wikup, Larkfield and Mark West residents from being traumatized a second time by fire's destruction.

The wind and the embers it cast were the enemy that night.

Parts of the fire blew up along Faught Road north of the Larkfield-Wikiup community, burning up a large metal barn full of hay at Fieldstone Farm at East Shiloh Road, Foreman said. They lost that barn but saved another, a historic wooden structure that could have generated even more intense heat and thrown embers into the nearby neighborhood.

Crews staged around Shiloh Ranch Regional Park forest, a key tactical mission to keep the fire from feeding off the park's forests edging the community.

But as soon as the winds lessened sometime around 1 a.m. Monday, the advantage shifted from the fire to the firefighters. Foreman said that as soon as they could, they began sending crews back to their stations or the Sonoma County Fairgrounds to get some desperately needed sleep before the next firefight.

The firefighting force working the Kincade fire numbers more than 4,300 bodies, 10 helicopters, a super tanker for retardant drops, fire behavior analysts and weather experts at its command to bring the Kincade fire to a halt. And they can bring a singular focus to firefighting in neighborhoods that have been evacuated, reducing the need to rescue people from fire.

But what they can't control is what will happen once the winds kick up again Tuesday.

“This isn't over yet. We've got another wind event,” Foreman said. “We've just got to stay the course.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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