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Damage assessment on Walbridge fire nears completion in west Sonoma County

Damage assessment teams on Tuesday nearly completed the grim task of surveying the toll of the Walbridge fire in west Sonoma County, even though firefighters anticipate it will take many weeks to fully extinguish hot spots inside the 86-square-mile burn zone.

Cal Fire teams counted 157 destroyed homes in the Walbridge perimeter by Tuesday evening and 135 other ruined structures like sheds, barns and pump houses. Ten homes have been damaged.

The work should be wrapped up by late Wednesday or Thursday, said Cal Fire Deputy Chief Sean Kavanaugh, incident commander for the LNU Lightning Complex, a series of wildfires that have burned 375,209 acres in six counties since Aug. 17.

Officials, however, said it is unlikely the damage figures would change substantially. The process is an extended one, requiring teams to inspect even remote parcels for fire damage and compare what they find with property records — and then, only once the roads are safe enough for them to gain access.

“We want it to be done as soon as possible,” Cal Fire spokesman Will Powers said. “The residents want it to be done as soon as possible.”

But with fire still burning in some areas, downed and hazard trees to mitigate, and the remote and rugged terrain, “it’s a longer process,” he said.

Kavanaugh started the day at the Cal Fire base camp in Calistoga by calling a moment of silence in honor of the death Monday of a Texas volunteer firefighter who perished while battling the August Complex in the Mendocino National Forest.

Diana Jones was killed in a vehicle accident while working as a contract firefighter with her son on the Tatham fire, part of the federally managed lightning complex that has burned nearly 243,000 acres of national forest northeast of Lake Pillsbury.

"This was a tragic incident, and our hearts go out to the family, friends, and colleagues of the fallen firefighter," acting Mendocino National Forest Supervisor Sandra Moore said in a statement. "Right now we are committed to providing support to those involved, while safely continuing firefighting operations.”

One other person, so far unidentified, required treatment for hand and arm burns suffered in the incident, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. A third was uninjured.

Officials working on the LNU Lightning Complex said Jones’ death underscores the critical importance of safety, which is reinforced among crews daily.

“It’s heartbreaking to hear when that happens,” Kavanaugh said.

The battle to tame the 54,940-acre Walbridge was in the “homestretch,” Powers said. The wildfire, which has not grown since Thursday, was 75% contained late Tuesday and work was underway to reinforce control lines around the remaining perimeter so it could be pronounced completely contained in the near future.

The 2,360-acre Meyers fire near Jenner, on the Sonoma Coast, was finally declared 100% contained Tuesday, that last 1% requiring several days to reach.

Containment lines on the Walbridge are still being completed in some of the most difficult terrain — areas with rock slides and steep, razorback ridges or deep canyons that make it difficult to deploy bulldozers and other equipment, Kavanaugh said. Instead, hand crews must build and connect the wide earthen lines that won’t be breached, even if a wind comes up and generates flames.

Kavanaugh said he hoped to complete containment in the next week or 10 days.

Fire also remains active in some areas, still “cooking down” vegetation, some from backfires purposely lit to consume fuels, especially below Mount Jackson near Rio Nido, and west of Westside Road and Healdsburg, around Felta Creek, Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said.

Air quality officials said widespread smoke from wildfires will continue to impact the Bay Area. A Spare the Air alert was extended through Thursday, marking more than two weeks under such warnings, the longest consecutive stretch. Scorching daytime temperatures are expected to return by this weekend.

Though the large Cal Fire incident command team brought into staff the LNU Lightning Complex will eventually depart and leave the remaining work to local fire agencies, Nicholls and Kavanaugh said ongoing firefighting and patrols will be necessary, aided by air support from at least one helicopter with a large water bucket.

“It’s a big fire, 55,000-acre fire over there,” in an area that hasn’t had a fire on it in a long time, Kavanaugh said. “It’s going to take a lot of work, until the rainy season.”

“One thing to remember, on big fires like this,” he continued. “There could be stuff until next spring. You could have smoke pop up out of stump holes months later.”

Staff Writer Lori A. Carter contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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