As winds return, fire threatens large swath of Santa Rosa, surrounds Oakmont
Uncontrolled wildfires burned in Santa Rosa and across Sonoma County for a second day Tuesday, adding to a deadly natural disaster that continued to outflank firefighters and menace rural and urban residents, with conditions expected to deteriorate again today.
The fires extended existing evacuation orders covering 20,000 people and prompted new directives into Tuesday night, when flames threatened Oakmont on three sides and nipped at the eastern edges of Santa Rosa in Bennett Valley and along Highway 12.
With the heavy smoke lifting and breezes increasing Tuesday evening, the new flare-ups were a distressing sign of flames potentially extending into another heavily populated area of the city. Winds are forecast to pick up further and shift through Wednesday and Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.
The largest of the blazes, the Tubbs fire, was threatening at least 16,000 homes, authorities said.
“We're not taking any chances. We don't know what the wind is going to do,” said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who is helping manage the Tubbs fire, which had burned 28,000 acres. “We're concerned for sure.”
The causes of the fires were undetermined Tuesday.
Evacuations launched late Tuesday by the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office included residents near Bennett Valley Golf Course, greater Montgomery Village and north of Geyserville along Ida Clayton Road.
Orders were also issued for the wooded Annadel Heights area, bordered to the north by Parktrail Drive and to the west by Summerfield Road. To the east, fire continues to burn in 5,000-acre Trione-Annadel State Park, which divides Annadel Heights from Oakmont.
The local death toll rose to 16 on Tuesday, including 11 fatalities in the Tubbs fire. Three deaths were confirmed in the inferno that burned through Redwood Valley in Mendocino County and two occurred in Napa County.
Together, wildland blazes in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties have burned 90,000 acres since late Sunday
Officials stressed that Sonoma County fires were uncontained and presented a serious risk to public safety in the coming days, with pockets of flame burning within the existing perimeters and new fronts pushing outward from the foothills of Windsor in the north to rugged terrain overlooking Sonoma Valley further south.
“That's really discouraging to hear,” Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said during Tuesday's board meeting. More than 24 hours after the Tubbs fire broke out in Calistoga and stormed across the Napa-Sonoma border into Santa Rosa, firefighters were scrambling to catch up.
It's “really kind of horrifying,” Zane said. “There really aren't enough words to explain the type of grief in our community right now.”
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, noted the unprecedented scope of the fires burning across the region.
“We have never been taxed by a natural disaster to the extent we are being taxed now,” he told an audience of about 600 people Tuesday night at Santa Rosa High School.
Fires across the region have destroyed up to 3,000 structures, according to Cal Fire.
Most of those losses occurred in the firestorm early Monday in the neighborhoods of northwest Santa Rosa, in Coffey Park, and to the east across Highway 101 in the Mark West-Larkfield area and the hilly, upscale subdivisions of Fountaingrove.
Added to that official list Tuesday were 75 homes lost along Bennett Ridge in east Santa Rosa, where residents walked their hillside neighborhood and compiled their own grim survey of the damage - more than 20 homes on Rollo Road, 20 on Bardy Road, 25 on Bennett Ridge and nine on Old Bennett Ridge
Surviving homes totaled about 35, according to the residents' tally.
“Lost. Lost. Lost. Lost. All these houses are just burned to the ground,” said Rollo Road resident Matt Jennings.
Trouble flared again late Monday - and reared in the same area late Tuesday - in eastern Santa Rosa, when the Nuns fire, centered in Sonoma Valley, ignited a rugged wooded canyon along White Oak Drive in the exclusive Wild Oak subdivision above Oakmont, threatening more than a dozen luxury homes.
The first Santa Rosa firefighters arrived at 10:43 p.m. Monday and quickly called for backup after seeing not only scrub brush burning but also manzanita and fir trees exploding, said Capt. Mike Harrison.
The winds were nowhere near like those that whipped the deadly Tubbs fire across the northern end of Santa Rosa, but they were stiff enough to make firefighters concerned about being so far up a narrow, dead-end road covered by trees, he said.