Firefight in Sonoma County reaches second week as flames force thousands to evacuate
An army of firefighters with a larger aerial arsenal at their disposal held their ground and made some gains Saturday on devastating wildfires ravaging Wine Country, but evacuation orders that forced thousands from their homes before dawn and a rising death toll were clear reminders of the peril that still grips the region.
Northeast winds that arrived early Saturday whipped up a new fire in the hills outside eastern Santa Rosa, and spread an existing blaze outside Sonoma, prompting another round of nighttime evacuation orders.
Thousands of Santa Rosa residents were forced to leave - some for the second time since last Sunday - while others faced their first mandatory orders in Sonoma.
Aware winds were on their way, firefighters were posted in potential trouble spots ahead of time as law enforcement officers - their bullhorns and sirens blaring - drove city blocks in Santa Rosa ordering people out of their homes before 3 a.m. They knocked on doors and in some cases returned to homes two or three times, authorities said.
By that time, flames had crept beyond Pythian Road below Hood Mountain Regional Park, east of Highway 12. Authorities were concerned the fire would advance on Oakmont, the retirement community across the highway from the park, and into the city.
The mass evacuation carried out by officers went smoothly, authorities said, allowing firefighters to focus on their job. It was a marked contrast with the helter-skelter operation on the night of the initial firestorm, they said.
“It was flawless,” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said of the morning evacuation of Highway 12 between Calistoga Road and Adobe Canyon Road in Kenwood. “That's what we can do when we're prepared.”
No homes burned in the area on Saturday, but smoke and flames from the Oakmont fire framed a terrifying backdrop against the mountains, with vineyards and at least one landmark winery - Ledson - in the foreground.
Fire officials characterized Saturday's overall efforts across the region as a success. Firefighters largely held their lines and increased containment of most blazes, including the Tubbs fire, which consumed more than 2,800 homes in Santa Rosa on Monday, and killed at least 22 people in Sonoma County.
The death toll across Northern California from wildfires that started last week increased to 40, including eight people in Mendocino County, six in Napa and four in Yuba County.
Fires in Sonoma County have burned 94,370 acres. Containment on the Tubbs fire grew to 50 percent on Saturday.
To the south in Sonoma Valley, the 46,106-acre Nuns fire jumped a containment line early Saturday morning on the northeast side of Sonoma.
“Crews experienced some very intense, some very difficult fire conditions. They did an outstanding job,” said Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre, estimating they'd likely saved hundreds of homes in the fire's path.
Gusty winds in hilly east Sonoma neighborhoods created what one soot-covered firefighter called “islands of fires,” threatening homes on Lovall Valley Road. At least three homes burned down on Castle Road less than 2 miles from the historic Sonoma Plaza.
Containment on the Nuns fire was 15 percent Saturday night.
There are now more than 3,400 people assigned to the firefight in Sonoma County. Across the wider region, including Mendocino, Lake, Napa and Yuba counties, where fires are also burning, 30 helicopters, 8 air tankers, and 3 massive 747s are making water and retardant drops, Cal Fire officials said.
“It's definitely a huge help that we have such a huge force of aircraft available to us,” said Amy Head, Cal Fire spokeswoman.
The aircraft have been particularly helpful in more remote areas, including the 11,246-acre Pocket fire near Geyerserville.
Lines on the Pocket fire held Saturday, with officials reporting little growth. Containment was at 15 percent.
“We held everything we had on the west, north and south. It's the east part that's the biggest concern,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshal Turbeville. “There's no good control on the east side.”
That section is burning toward The Geysers and beyond into Lake County. Growth was slow and Cal Fire officials in Lake County were less concerned about the threat Saturday night.
In Santa Rosa, ridgetop flames early Saturday lit up the eastern horizon, frightening residents who fled west. Some hunkered down in the parking lot of the Safeway on Calistoga Road, watching the firefight. After daybreak they saw aircraft, including a hulking 747 supertanker, douse the Oakmont fire with retardant.
The forecast Saturday night called for winds up to 25 mph out of the north, better conditions than Friday, but not ideal for corralling the fires.