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Fire burns at least 13 Petaluma homes and properties near Highway 101

Embers from a eucalyptus grove that caught fire Tuesday afternoon alongside Highway 101 in Petaluma spread to more than a dozen homes, destroying four of them, as police evacuated an entire neighborhood and closed northbound highway lanes at the start of the evening commute.

The nearly one-hour highway closure, initially involving both lanes north of the Lakeville Highway offramp, was lifted at 4:15 p.m. Northbound traffic was backed up well into northern Marin County.

The fire, reported shortly after 3 p.m., started in grass near the freeway offramp at East Washington Street and was blown south by the wind into eucalyptus leaves along the Highway 101 shoulder, then exploded up into a row of the tall trees, Petaluma Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Holden said.

Petaluma police evacuated about 20 homes as firefighters battled flames that quickly climbed to the tops of the trees and then rained embers down on a row of homes.

“Trees were torching off, embers were being thrown (by the wind,)” Holden said.

With the potential for even more destruction and the number of homes aflame, officials called for waves of help - more engines, water trucks and personnel from departments throughout Sonoma County.

As a dry, hot afternoon breeze flung embers onto the homes on Stuart Drive, firefighters worked from the closed highway and inside the neighborhood while a Cal Fire helicopter dumped water on the blaze.

Damage to the homes, all in the 300 block, ranged from a scorched fence at one residence to four homes left uninhabitable and eight with significant damage including burned backyard decks, sheds and appliances as well as windows and siding, Holden said. No estimate of the damage had been calculated, he said Tuesday night.

The neighborhood is in an older subdivision of modest, one-story homes bordered by the highway, McDowell Boulevard, East Washington Street and McGregor Avenue.

Evacuated residents were sent to the Safeway parking lot in the Washington Square Shopping Center or to nearby McKenzie and Cortez Drive, outside of the fire zone, Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons said.

Don Armstrong, who lives on a cul-de-sac off at the north end of Stuart Drive, said police kicked a hole in his fence to facilitate the evacuation. Armstrong said it was the third fire on his block since 1954.

Two residents suffered minor injuries that did not require hospital treatment. One was a young woman who sustained burn blisters on the bottom of one foot.

No exact cause of the fire was determined, but Holden said it was accidental, attributing it to vehicle traffic.

The fire's proximity to the busy highway meant it was seen by scores of drivers, as well as many residents in the neighborhood. As dark smoke rose over the area, police and emergency fire dispatchers were inundated by 911 calls starting at 3:16 p.m. with reports of multiple homes ablaze, flaming trees and a towering smoke plume.

The first fire company on scene immediately called for support, and Holden said the blaze initially overwhelmed the responding crews. They worked first to halt the wind-blown fire's advance, then turned to the burning homes.

The flames apparently damaged gas service valves on multiple homes, fueling the fire's spread as “flames shot like a torch in the attic,” Holden said.

The blaze was the equivalent of a five-alarm fire, he said.

Resident Bill Folla owned one of the hardest-hit homes, which appeared to be thoroughly charred inside. He's lived on Stuart Drive for 55 years and 30 years in his current home.

“Right now I'm just trying to get my cat, if he's still alive,” Folla said. “Other than that, everything else can be replaced.”

A cat that became trapped in one of the destroyed homes was killed, Battalion Chief Jeff Schach said in a news release.

A plumber, Folla said he arrived home from work in San Francisco and found his home a smoldering ruin. The home is insured, he said.

As 22 fire engines and other pieces of equipment arrived, firefighters took over the neighborhood, filling the streets with parked vehicles while numerous hoses snaked in various directions down the street.

While flames at several properties were quickly doused, the burning homes took longer to put out. Firefighters, their protective gear covered in water and ash, continued to fight the blazing structures almost two hours after the initial call.

“They're hammered, it was hot,” Holden said, describing how crews rotated in and out of the houses, breathing from air bottles that last 15 to 20 minutes at a time. The last crews cleared the scene about 7:45 p.m.

Petaluma deployed its entire on-duty crew and was aided by units from Rancho Adobe, Lakeville, Gold Ridge, Cal Fire, Rincon Valley, Wilmar, Rohnert Park, Sonoma, Schellville, Sebastopol, Bennett Valley, Santa Rosa and the Coast Guard, officials said.

The Red Cross was called to help with temporary shelter for residents. Police officials have said evacuated residents can call 707-778-4372 for updates on temporary shelter.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412.

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