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Updates: Cal Fire officials bracing for lightning, winds in fight against Walbridge fire

7:15 PM: Schools closed Monday because of Walbridge fire

Distance learning in the following districts will be canceled Monday because of the Walbridge fire: Forestville, Monte Rio, Guerneville, and Montgomery districts. Classes at El Molino High School in Forestville will also be canceled, according to the Sonoma County Office of Education.

Families are encouraged to check with their school district offices for updates about distance learning.

6:15 PM: ’Just because you are back home does not mean you are home for good’

Officials explained the move to downgrade a number of evacuation orders to evacuation warnings Sunday afternoon as a response to a change in conditions.

“Those evacuation orders were put out with the idea of an abundance of caution,” said Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls during an afternoon briefing. “We didn’t see those fire conditions increase as expected which is what allowed us to go back to an evacuation warning.”

But with a weather system bearing down that could bring unpredictable and strong winds, Nicholls urged residents to remain vigilant and following fire updates.

“Just because you are back home does not mean you are home for good,” he said.

And Nicholls acknowledged the difficulty of any evacuation order during an ongoing health crisis like COVID-19.

“Please know that we are doing everything in our power to keep people in their homes, especially in these trying times of the pandemic that we are in,” he said.

Even as some evacuation orders are being downgraded from orders to warnings, Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies are dealing with people not adhering to orders to stay clear of fire zones.

“We are having a problem with people who are staying in evacuated areas and they are driving around in there,” Sgt. Juan Valencia said in a briefing Sunday afternoon.

Elsewhere in the LNU Lightning Complex fire, crews expect to have the Meyers fire north of Jenner 100% contained by Monday.

5:50 PM: Helicopters make water drops along Mill Creek Road to fight Walbridge Fire

Heavy smoke on Sunday prevented a full-fledged air attack on the flames of the Walbridge fire west of Healdsburg but helicopters were able to fly in some areas. One helicopter completed multiple water drops using a pond on the 2000 block of Mill Creek Road to douse flames Sunday afternoon, according to Cal Fire representative Paul Lowenthal, who is also an assistant fire marshal at the Santa Rosa Fire Department.

The work was in advance of a storm system that is expected to bring high winds and dry lightning between 6 and 11 p.m.

“The reality is, there are crews on all sides of the fire and they are trying to chip away at it while the weather is somewhat cooperating,” he said. “The other issue is this is shaping up to be a much dryer system than last time.”

“There is still a lot of work to do,” he said.

5 PM: Cal Fire officials bracing for lightning, winds in Sunday night fight against Walbridge fire

Cal Fire officials remain wary of an impending lightning-packed storm front that could spark more wildfires or bring winds to fan the infernos currently burning in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Officials say resources are standing ready to combat the Walbridge fire, which has taken top priority among a handful of regional fires sparked by lightning a week ago and totaling 314,000 acres as of Sunday evening.

“Tonight, specifically, is our largest concern due to the red flag warnings and the dry lightning forecast to come into the area,” Cal Fire Chief Ben Nichols said during a media briefing Sunday evening, adding that he was worried about winds pushing the fire in new directions. “We could have significant growth in any portion of the fire.”

3 PM: Sonoma County suffers through another day of poor air quality

Wildfires raging in Northern California continue to impact air quality in the Bay Area, leading to some of the worst Air Quality Index readings in the world this weekend.

In Sonoma County on Sunday, air quality remained in the “unhealthy” category, which ranges from 151-200, out of 500, on the Air Quality Index. Sebastopol’s 182 was the worst, followed by Guerneville, which is tucked just south of the Walbridge fire.

Poor air quality prompted the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to extend Spare the Air alerts through Wednesday. The alerts prohibit wood burning and encourage residents to reduce vehicle travel that contributes to unhealthy air. And that unhealthy air was a fact of life Sunday for all but one air quality monitoring station in Sonoma County – a sensor at Doran Beach in Bodega Bay.

Elsewhere, from the Sonoma Valley to Petaluma to Cloverdale, residents were advised to avoid unnecessary trips outdoors. And on Saturday, the air was so bad in Healdsburg, due west of the Walbridge fire, it beat out a record San Francisco reading set during the Camp fire in November 2018, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.

Healdsburg’s Air Quality Index reading Sunday, according to a temporary monitoring station, was 292, according to the EPA’s monitoring data.

Northern California’s air quality, according to a worldwide, realtime tracker, was in line Sunday afternoon with some of the worst air quality spots in the world, matching readings in South Africa, India and China.

Check air quality in your area here.

2 PM: Sonoma County sheriff downgrades some evacuations from orders to warnings

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has downgraded evacuation orders to evacuation warnings for the following areas:

East of Dutcher Creek Road and the Dry Creek; north of Canyon Road, west of Hwy. 101

South of Canyon Road and east of the Dry Creek; north of Lytton Springs Road and west of Geyserville Avenue

South of Lytton Springs road and east of the Dry Creek; north of Westside Road and west of Healdsburg city limits

All areas north and east of Westside Road, west of Hwy. 101 and west of the Russian River

All areas west of Hwy. 101 and east of the Russian River to the Windsor town limits; north of where Windsor River Road dead ends extending west to Russian River

All areas east of the Russian River and north of River Road; west of Trenton Healdsburg Road and Eastside Road, south of the area between the western dead end of Windsor River Road and the Russian River

North of Guerneville Road and east of Covey Road to Hwy. 116; west of Laguna Road and south of River Road

Despite the lifting of the mandatory evacuation order, the areas are still at risk from the Walbridge fire, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Residents in those areas are asked to stay home for the day once at home.

2 PM: Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office announces residents in some areas surrounding Walbridge fire OK to go home

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office rolled back evacuation orders early Sunday afternoon, allowing residents in a large swath of the west county to return home, but warning that doing so was “at your own risk.”

The announcement came via a 2 p.m. Nixle alert, and an attempt to contact the Sheriff’s Office for more information was not immediately successful.

The areas in question, which include areas east of Westside Road north of Sweetwater Springs Road, and east of the Russian River south of Sweetwater Springs Road, were ordered evacuated Saturday morning.

“These areas are still at risk from the Walbridge fire,” according to the Sheriff’s Office’s Nixle alert. “We recommend you stay home for the day once you arrive. There’s going to be a lot of traffic in the area so please drive safely; our priority is getting everyone home safely.”

For an interactive map of evacuation zones, go here. To find your evacuation zone, go here.

1:30 PM: Strategy in place should new blazes ignite, says Cal Fire

With the threat of another wave of dry lightning, coupled with gusting and erratic winds this afternoon and into the evening, Cal Fire officials are preparing to keep a keen eye out for any new blazes that ignite, LNU Incident Commander Sean Kavanaugh said in a Sunday morning briefing.

“The main key that is going to be (happening) with the weather is getting on the new starts,” Kavanaugh said. “The last thing we are going to need anywhere is for a new fire to take off.”

Officials have a strategy in place should new blazes ignite, he said.

“If we do get a new start, we have to pull resources,” he said. “We have to make sure we do not get new starts up and running on us. How we are going to do that has all been set in place.”

12:50 PM: Officials warn of additional evacuations if weather turns: ’You need to have a plan’

Across the state, more than 14,000 firefighters are battling 12 separate blazes, including two of the largest in state history, LNU Lightning Complex fire incident commander Sean Kavanaugh said in a briefing Sunday. The LNU Lightning Complex has charred 341,243 acres as of Sunday morning is the second largest in history and the SCU Lightning Complex around Santa Clara County is the third largest.

Firefighting efforts could be further stressed Sunday afternoon and into the evening as dry lightning, as well as gusty and erratic winds are expected to hit the area. With the unpredictable weather looming, additional evacuations could be issued.

“More evacuations are certainly possible this evening,” Napa County undersheriff John Crawford said. “We understand it’s not something to be taken lightly. We understand the toll it can take on those living in these areas.”

Cal Fire Unit Chief Shana Jones urged residents to be ready – both packed and with an exit plan – should more evacuations be issued.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of being prepared to leave. You need to have a plan, you need to be prepared,” she said. “If that tingling on the back of your neck says ‘I need to leave,’ please do so. Do not wait to be told.”

While officials expressed optimism that the Meyers fire north of Jenner could be “buttoned up” by Monday, other blazes continue to rage.

The Walbridge fire burning west of Healdsburg presents unique challenges according to Chris Waters, Operation Section Chief of the LNU Lightning Complex fire for Cal Fire, because there are “very few places to really operate efficiently.”

11AM: Cal Fire gives update on fires

Watch a press conference on the fire fight at https://www.facebook.com/CALFIRELNU/videos/357604242071709/?v=357604242071709

10:55 AM: Progress on Meyers, Walbridge continues to be ’extremely challenging’

Chris Waters, Operation Section Chief of the LNU Lightning Complex fire for Cal Fire, on Sunday morning gave an update on the three major blazes burning locally.

The Meyers fire north of Jenner is “looking pretty good. We expect to have this pretty well buttoned up by tomorrow.” As of Sunday morning, that blaze was reported to be 70% contained.

The Walbridge fire west of Healdsburg is burning in “very complex terrain,” he said. “Heavy fuels, redwood timber, lots of structures, a highly complex operation. We have resources working in there trying to connect the dots, trying to get a direct line on the fire. Progress is being made but it is still extremely challenging.” The Walbridge blaze was reported 0% contained and had burned more than 51,000 acres as of Sunday morning.

In the fight against the Hennessy fire in Napa and Lake counties, the “highest priority in the entire LNU Lightning Complex fire is an area on the western border of the blaze north of Swartz Creek and near The Palisades,” Waters said.

“There is significant activity in the area north of Swartz Creek working into The Palisades and continuing…north up to Lake County,” he said.

The Hennessy fire is reported to be 17% contained and has burned 287,811 acres as of Sunday morning.

The entire LNU Lightning Complex fire had burned 341,243 acres and is reportedly 17 percent contained.

10:15 AM: Wind gusts between 40-50 mph expected

Officials are expressing concern about an anticipated weather pattern Sunday – including dry lightning and high winds – that could not only hamper firefighting efforts but ignite new blazes.

At 10 a.m. the weather pattern that showed cloud cover and lightning was near Point Conception south of San Luis Obispo. That pattern was expected to reach the North Bay and Sonoma County by late afternoon, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Cindy Palmer.

“It’s going to continue to lift northward along the coast,” she said. “We are on track for seeing this event develop this afternoon.”

The “main event” in Sonoma County is expected to generate erratic wind gusts between 40-50 mph and “it will be possible we could see some higher gusts though,” Palmer said. “We can’t rule it out.”

This story will be updated throughout the day.

9:30 AM: Fire crews bracing for ’extreme fire behavior’

As of 7 a.m. Sunday, fire crews had reached 70% containment on the Meyers fire north of Jenner. The total acreage burned as of Sunday morning was 2,360.

The Walbridge fire, raging west of Healdsburg is still 0% contained and the number of acres burned was reported at 51,072 early Sunday.

The massive Hennessey fire burning in Napa and Lake counties reached 287,811 acres burned by Sunday morning. It was reportedly 17% contained.

The entire LNU Lightning Complex had torched 341,243 acres is also reportedly 17% contained. The entire, multi-county complex of fires has destroyed 845 structures and currently threatens 30,500.

Crews and officials are bracing for what is described as “extreme fire behavior” and “significant fire growth” because of expected dry lightning and thunderstorms that could cause erratic winds. Those winds could not only affect current fires but ignite new blazes in the region, officials said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

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