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About 200,000 Sonoma County residents under evacuation orders during Kincaid fire

As the Kincade fire menaced the outskirts of Windsor and Healdsburg and torched properties in the Alexander Valley on Sunday, public officials expanded evacuation orders to nearly 200,000 Sonoma County residents, hoping to avert a tragedy on the magnitude of the 2017 firestorm.

The largest evacuation in the county’s history, which more than doubled in size Sunday, grew through a series of orders from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and Santa Rosa Police Department, based on information from Cal Fire about the advancing fire, which has surpassed 30,000 acres. Mandatory evacuation orders now affect about 180,000 to 185,000 residents, according to county officials.

The scope of the exodus is roughly on par with the effort to evacuate residents along the Feather River Basin spanning three Northern California counties in 2017, when erosion of an emergency spillway at the Oroville Dam raised fears the valley would be flooded and cities wiped out. It is less drastic than a storm of more than 17 fires that spanned Southern California and forced nearly 1 million people from their homes in 2007.

Most displaced Sonoma County residents will likely find shelter with friends and family, said Cynthia Shaw, a Red Cross spokeswoman from San Jose. Others will try to find a hotel room among the strained North Bay lodging stock. For others, public shelters offered spaces at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, the Marin County Fairgrounds in San Rafael, and the Napa Valley College and CrossWalk Church in Napa, Shaw said.

“Those that may not have transportation or that network or means, we provide that safety net,” she said. At least 2,500 people had sought temporary shelter at one of numerous sites set up across the North Bay.

Last night was a sleepless one for Ron Wilkins of Santa Rosa’s Rincon Valley neighborhood.

The retired high school teacher and his wife, Judy, kept tabs on the fire after losing power Saturday evening. They decided to go to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds emergency shelter at about 5 a.m. Sunday.

Wilkins, 81, said he didn’t think the wildfire would reach Santa Rosa. But Judy Wilkins wanted to go, so they grabbed their 12-year-old Rottweiler mix, Harley, and made their way to the fairgrounds’ Finley Hall, which allowed small pets.

Sitting on a bench as the sun rose, Ron Wilkins questioned whether authorities were “really overdoing it” when it came to the mass evacuations, but acknowledged the consequences could be worse without a large response.

“They’re playing it safe,” he said. “And if you make a mistake on that, it’s pretty bad.”

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick, who made the final decision on the extent of the weekend’s evacuations, defended the scale of the effort.

“I can understand why someone in Bodega Bay is saying, ‘C’mon. What are you guys doing?’ I don’t take these decisions lightly,” said Essick, who was sworn into the position in January after starting his career with the Sheriff’s Office in 1994 as a correctional deputy. “I look at October 2017 and I still get emotional about this because I was there. … We lost 24 lives.”

PG&E’s ongoing power shut-off, which the utility says is affecting more than 100,000 Sonoma County customers and hundreds of thousands of others across California, posed a challenge in locating shelters, Shaw said.

Still, she was optimistic that as shelters become full - such as three in Petaluma and at least one in Marin County - the Red Cross will work with local and state government officials to open new shelters, working outward in concentric circles to minimize how far evacuees have to go.

“Evacuations by their nature are stressful and chaotic, but the community has been incredibly resilient and very responsive,” she said.

County officials said that while some residents in evacuation zones refused to leave, most appeared to have heeded the warnings. Residents in Geyserville, in the shadow of the Kincade fire’s early flames, were the first to be told to leave. Then came warnings for Healdsburg and Windsor. Subsequent orders prompted tens of thousands more residents in Guerneville, Sebastopol and northern and northwestern sections of Santa Rosa to pack up and get out.

Highway 101 traffic in Santa Rosa and for miles south inched along Sunday morning after roughly 60,000 city residents were told to leave. The crush of cars was particularly tight at the Highway 12 interchange where residents from the city and north county merged with evacuees from the western hills and along the Pacific coast.

Police came through city neighborhoods blaring European-style sirens to signal evacuations. and people also got the message through social media, said Santa Rosa Police Chief Rainer Navarro.

“It was very hectic. There were a lot of people on the street,” he said, adding “It was gridlocked everywhere.”

By late morning, “everything seems to be running kind of normally for a Sunday,” he said.

A spokeswoman and community services officer for the Sheriff’s Office, Karen Hancock, said deputies had received no major crash reports, just a few fender-benders in the bumper-to-bumper traffic. A CHP spokesman did not respond to a message seeking comment about traffic during the evacuation from the fire and the widespread power outage.

Despite the flood of evacuees, only one significant crash was reported in Santa Rosa over the past 24 hours, Navarro said. The city also hasn’t had any major incidents because of the fire or power outage, he said.

There was a burst of confusion in the early morning hours, though, when Navarro’s police department publicly corrected an erroneous evacuation notice from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, which steadily issued alerts through the night as the evacuation zone grew.

The Sheriff’s Office shortly after 4 a.m. mistakenly notified people in northeast Santa Rosa that they were under a mandatory evacuation. About 20 minutes later, the Police Department announced that residents in Fountaingrove, Oakmont and Rincon Valley were not under evacuation at that time. (Those homes would become subject to an evacuation order about a half-hour later.)

The apparent problem was that the Sheriff’s Office did not specify that its order applied only to people in unincorporated Sonoma County and not Santa Rosa, which is under the Police Department’s direction.

Misti Wood, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, acknowledged that the Sheriff’s Office message, based on zones decided by Cal Fire, was not specific enough. She noted that local government officials “try to constantly be on the same page, but it can be chaotic.”

“I can certainly see why people would be confused,” she said.

Hotels have proved difficult to come by in the rush of large-scale evacuations.

Local nonprofit Corazón Healdsburg has been raising money and helping relocate people who were directly affected by the wildfire, as well as evacuees who poured into crowded shelters. As early locations in Healdsburg and Santa Rosa closed and more people were ordered to evacuate, however, the next one or two shelters downstream would fill up that much quicker, said Ariel Kelley of Corazón.

Hotel bookings were instantly limited in the south county and stretching into Novato as well, she said. Rather than temporarily move people until the next shelter potentially closes under the threat of the fire moving south, Corazón and a group of about a dozen partner organizations settled on making reservations in San Francisco to overcome other related challenges.

“A lot of areas in Marin (County) are completely without power, so people are in the dark, there’s no cell communication and no internet,” said Kelley. “You can’t really check into a hotel if the hotel doesn’t have power. In San Francisco, there’s power and plenty of hotel rooms.”

Staff Writers Kevin Fixler and Bill Swindell contributed to this report. ?You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. ?On Twitter @wsreports.

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