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The Walbridge fire zone in Mill Creek watershed Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, west of Healdsburg. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

A month later, burn scar of Walbridge fire spans northwestern Sonoma County

The largest west county fire in decades claimed 156 homes and huge swath of forest.

When the first alerts sounded, it was still known as the 13-4 fire, one of dozens of wildfires sparked around Sonoma County by a two-day lightning siege that would set California ablaze and ensure 2020 eclipsed all other fire seasons on record in the state.

Now a month old, the Walbridge fire is still not fully contained, though the flames that once swept up steep slopes and funneled through canyons are now largely subdued, any major threat abated. Huge swaths of northwestern Sonoma County have been left gray and ashen.

The fire destroyed 156 homes and 293 structures in all across the remote hills north of Guerneville and west of Healdsburg. Residents have begun trickling back to salvage what they can from the ruins or, if they’re lucky, clean up houses and properties that survived.

A burned home off Mill Creek Road in the Walbridge fire zone west of Healdsburg on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
A burned home off Mill Creek Road in the Walbridge fire zone west of Healdsburg on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Hazardous materials teams have begun removing toxic debris from damaged areas, while watershed assessment teams are working to survey environmental damage and erosion control measures that will be needed in advance of winter rains.

Fire crews from far and wide that once scrambled to cover more than 55,000 acres have moved onto other wildfires ― the last five engines departing late Tuesday ― leaving two Cal Fire utility trucks to patrol the charred fire zone for another week or two, or whenever they stop seeing signs of fire smoldering somewhere, Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said.

Their remaining time on the Walbridge “would be based on how many smokes that they’re dealing with each day,” Nicholls said. “If they get to a spot where they’re not seeing them, then we will release those.”

Burning stumps and other indications of potential trouble are still popping up maybe five times day, and late Sunday, there was a flare-up of 5 to 10 acres near The Cedars and Cazadero that ignited unburned vegetation inside the fire line, he said.

“They’ve got 55,000 acres to try to keep an eye on,” Nicholls said.

Burned homes off Mill Creek Road in the Walbridge fire zone west of Healdsburg, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.   (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Burned homes off Mill Creek Road in the Walbridge fire zone west of Healdsburg, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

What would become the Walbridge fire was discovered in the rugged hills near Austin Creek State Recreation Area on the afternoon of Aug. 17. It was initially named after the fire battalion that first reported it and the order in which it was found. Crews at that time had fanned out around the county and much of the rest of California to track down ignition sites after two days of dry lightning struck the state.

The Walbridge fire was among about a dozen that broke out in the North Bay, including one on the Sonoma Coast near Jenner that grew into the 2,300-acre Meyers fire. It claimed five structures and three homes.

A heritage oak and its ash scar in the Walbridge fire zone, Tuesday Sept. 15, 2020 west of Healdsburg.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
A heritage oak and its ash scar in the Walbridge fire zone, Tuesday Sept. 15, 2020 west of Healdsburg. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Five fires in neighboring Napa County erupted and eventually merged to become the massive Hennessey fire, which killed five people, burned nearly 318,000 acres across four counties and destroyed 1,193 structures.

All were ultimately grouped together in the LNU Lightning Complex ― one of three fire complexes surrounding the Bay Area since mid-August.

Though small at first, the fire renamed Walbridge after its second day was quickly identified for its destructive potential, given the densely fueled, rugged landscape where it had sparked ― terrain untouched by a large wildfire for decades. The first large evacuations were already underway outside Guerneville and eventually they would cover 11,339 people from the coast to Forestville and up into the Dry Creek Valley. More than 29,000 people would be placed under evacuation warnings, including all of Healdsburg.

PG&E works to repair lines and utility poles in the Walbridge fire zone between Mill Creek and Wallace Creek west of Healdsburg, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
PG&E works to repair lines and utility poles in the Walbridge fire zone between Mill Creek and Wallace Creek west of Healdsburg, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Stoked by record heat that had come just days before, the fire tore through the coast mountains between Lake Sonoma, Healdsburg and the Russian River, where access along a few narrow roads is difficult and bulldozers have limited reach. It took its greatest toll on structures in communities along Mill Creek and on McCray Ridge Road off Sweetwater Springs Road near Guerneville.

One whose home survived is Herman J. Hernandez, a well-known civic leader and real estate agent who lives on 50 sloping acres along Sweetwater Springs Road. About half of the property burned in the fire, but the family’s home was spared. They were gone for 18 days, staying in hotel rooms amid a pandemic that upended normal shelter operations across the state.

“We were blessed,” Hernandez said Thursday, noting that flames came within 50 feet of several structures. “Every time you go back up and you look, you see something new.”

The Walbridge turned out not to be as rapacious as the fierce, wind-driven blazes that sweep across miles of land in a matter of hours ― the autumn infernos now so familiar across much of Northern California.

The Walbridge instead chewed through terrain more slowly, creeping through canyons and down creekbeds, extending fingers through woods in several directions at once. For the first week or more, crews that otherwise might have hemmed in some of that growth were scarce, their ranks stretched thin across more than two dozen major blazes and hundreds of smaller fires burning across the state.

A burned home off Mill Creek Road in Venado in the Walbridge fire zone, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
A burned home off Mill Creek Road in Venado in the Walbridge fire zone, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Even Thursday, some 17,400 firefighters were divided among 26 major incidents, Nicholls said.

At the peak on the LNU Lightning Complex, personnel reached 2,839 at the end of August. On Thursday, there were just 98 people assigned across the entire incident.

By comparison, according to Nicholls, the peak force reached 5,200 firefighters last year on the the 77,758-acre Kincade fire, Sonoma County’s last major blaze.

“This one,” he said of the Walbridge, “is different in the long run that we’ve had. Even with the Valley (in 2015 in Lake County) or fires that we’ve dealt with in the last five years, they have been largely mitigated within two weeks, two and a half weeks, maybe three weeks, and yesterday was the one month mark of the first lightning that came in on Sunday the 16th of August through Monday, and yesterday we still had resources on the fire.”

Containment on the 55,209-acre Walbridge sits at 98% ― the same as the entire complex ― with full containment expected by Oct. 1.

Nicholls said he expects to have patrols on the fire for at least another week, if not two.

“As a whole the fire’s looking really good, but we want to make sure it doesn’t come back to life,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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