Climate-driven hardship tends to build incrementally. But it took an enormous jump for those of us living in the North Bay five years ago, when a siege of wind-driven wildfires ended 40 human lives, destroyed more than 6,000 homes and burned close to 400 square miles — an area larger than the five boroughs of New York City.
While there were at least 10 named fires that erupted across four North Bay counties on Oct. 8 and 9, 2017, the Tubbs Fire — the most destructive in state history at the time, responsible for 22 of the deaths and 4,600 lost homes — came to stand for the wider firestorm.
Sonoma County, where the Tubbs did its worst, took the hardest blow.
In less than four nighttime hours, the fire roared from a quiet road in rural Calistoga to the Fountaingrove community in Santa Rosa. It vaulted the seemingly insurmountable barrier of Highway 101 — six lanes, plus median and shoulders — before it laid waste to the city neighborhood of Coffey Park.
By daybreak, it had incinerated more than 3,000 homes inside city limits, emptying large expanses of Santa Rosa of any residents, in some places for nearly a year or more.
In short, it was the fire that reset our notion of collective risk in the global climate crisis.
To find out what has changed in the five years since — what shortfalls have been resolved and which problems remain, and which questions must be answered if this region is to remain habitable in generations to come — Press Democrat reporter Phil Barber set out to retrace the 11½-mile-long path of the Tubbs Fire.
He talked to residents, firefighters, ecologists and entrepreneurs, most of them some combination of weary and hopeful, to draw lessons from wounds of the burn scar.
The ignition point: Bennett Lane
Jack Piccinini and I were parked on the shoulder of Highway 128 near Bennett Lane, just north of Calistoga, idling in a red emergency vehicle bearing the imprint of the Sebastopol Volunteer Fire Department. Piccinini, a retired Santa Rosa battalion chief, has been a member of the agency for more than 50 years.
“The origin of the Tubbs Fire was right up here,” Piccinini told me, nodding into his windshield. “It blew across the road pretty quick up here.”
Like most other fires that night across Northern California, the Tubbs began with a spark from power equipment, in this case when electrical current from a high-tension wire arced to the ground. The winds were almost supernatural, with sustained gusts of 68 mph that night and mountaintop winds measured even higher, and they overpowered utility lines — including a private electrical system on a residential property off Bennett Lane.
From there, the fire would roll nearly unabated over the undulations of the Mayacamas Mountains that divide Napa and Sonoma counties, progressing from sparsely populated areas to dense developments. Fire scientists have estimated the Tubbs Fire ran 230 feet per minute at its peak. It cast embers nearly a mile ahead of the main front.
Overwhelmed North Bay fire and police agencies could do nothing more than warn people to get out, trying to stay one step ahead of the flames. In many cases, residents received no warning at all, part of a systematic failure, especially in Sonoma County, that would spur a wholesale reevaluation of emergency notices from the local to state level.
Older residents of the region thought they’d never see another Hanly Fire, which had carved almost the same path in 1964. Tubbs was a reprise, but with a larger scale of devastation.
Most of those who evacuated ahead of the Tubbs Fire had little time to gather family mementos and medical documents, or sometimes even pets. They left in whatever they were wearing at the time. Others had no time even for that. They huddled in wine cellars or stood dazed in swimming pools as flames encircled them.