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Firefighters battle 1,500-acre Sawmill fire in The Geysers

A wildfire fueled by high temperatures and dry conditions erupted in The Geysers in northeastern Sonoma County on Sunday, blackening at least 1,500 acres of rugged countryside by late afternoon and prompting evacuations of several dozen rural homes, Cal Fire said.

Hundreds of firefighters were on the fire lines by evening, digging in for an all-night battle against both the flames and the erratic winds capable of reversing strong gains made by day in taming the blaze.

The fire was at least 10 percent contained by nightfall, due in large part to a heavy bombardment by eight air tankers and six helicopters throughout the day, Cal Fire said. No injuries or structural losses had been reported.

But the aircraft were released for the night, leaving ground crews numbering 473 people and growing to continue on without air support amid dry northerly winds, Cal Fire officials said.

“The fire has been knocked down and laid down to a great degree,” Cal Fire Division Chief Mike Wilson said. “The only problem is now the air resources will be leaving. .?.?. We’ll still have the entire night with very poor humidity recovery.

“If all holds as it’s looking now, through the night, we’re looking to turn the corner tomorrow,” he said.” But if it gets established or crosses a line with those low humidities through the night, and no aircraft, that could be an issue tonight.”

The blaze, officially called the Sawmill fire, was reported shortly before 11 a.m. off Geysers and Geysers Resorts roads, in an area controlled by Calpine, a geothermal energy corporation that maintains 14 power plants in the Mayacamas Mountains east of Geyserville.

The cause was unknown and remained under investigation.

The fire was burning through brush and oak woodland in steep, rugged terrain about 10 miles east of Cloverdale, sending up a large, dark plume of smoke that was visible from many lowland areas in both Sonoma County and in Lake County, where recent, devastating wildfires already have caused their share of trauma.

Fire and Sonoma County sheriff’s personnel evacuated about 36 residences in the area of Geysers Road, Pocket Ranch Road and Monkey Rock Road, though some were vacation homes and hunting cabins.

Assistant Santa Rosa Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal, a public information officer for the North Bay Incident Management Team, said officials, using census data, estimated about 89 individuals were affected.

The Red Cross and Sonoma County opened an evacuation center at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 1402 University Ave., in Healdsburg. No one utilized the services Sunday night.

Officials also closed Geysers Road at River and Red Winery roads for the night.

The Sawmill fire blanketed Cloverdale in smoke and was expected to sock in the area’s valleys overnight.

“People are probably going to wake up smelling smoke if they’re not already doing that,” National Weather Service meteorologist Drew Peterson said.

Firefighters, already mobilized by temperatures that topped the century mark in north county communities, along with gusting winds and low humidity, hit the fire hard.

One saving grace, Wilson said, was that the fire zone overlapped the burn scar left by the McCabe fire of November 2013, which charred more than 3,500 acres in the same area.

That means some of the brush fuel was only 3 years old and thus far less dense than areas which hadn’t burned for decades, he said.

In addition, fire lines cut by bulldozers during the earlier fire have sprouted grasses but will still be easier to exploit in some places than it would be to cut new fire lines, Wilson said.

It was also helpful that Cal Fire had maintained strong staffing levels because of the weekend red flag warning, he said.

Lowenthal said it was assumed immediately the fire would likely be “significant,” which is why “there were a tremendous number of resources that were thrown at this immediately.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said public officials were closely monitoring and coordinating on public safety measures, and said resources were coming in from around the region, especially Marin County and the greater Bay Area.

At least four strike teams from Sonoma County were deployed, and several dozen personnel. Cal Fire reported that a water tender overturned on Geysers Road while responding to the blaze. No injuries were reported. McGuire said emergency officials in both Sonoma and Lake counties were on standby in the event the fire blew up.

The fire, which at one point was burning toward the Lake County line, prompted alarm among residents there, many of whom endured the 76,000-acre Valley Fire a year ago and remain surrounded by the scars of that disaster.

A huge plume of smoke was visible above the ridgeline in the Cobb Mountain Area, where much of the Valley Fire burned, and hundreds of worried callers bombarded the Kelseyville Fire Protection District in Lake County to inquire about the fire’s whereabouts, fire engineer Scott Crawford said.

“We’re all very much on edge up here, for obvious reasons,” said Andy Alexander, whose neighborhood near Gifford Springs in the Cobb Area was nearly destroyed in the Valley Fire. “We just don’t know, but it (the fire) is on your side of the hill right now, and we kind of hope it stays there. We’ll see. We’re just praying for the best.”

Tim Ward, who manages Sky Pine Vineyards 2,000 feet up Pine Mountain above Cloverdale, said he was warily watching the gray and white plume grow to the southeast over Geyserville as jet tankers flew overhead. He said he was scheduled to start harvesting 15 acres of cabernet grapes tonday.

Meanwhile, he said he is making sure he’s stocked with cold beer.

“In case our power goes off we might as well have cold beer. I don’t mean to make light of this,” he said. “But what can you do? You have to take it as it comes. That’s farming in Sonoma County this time of year.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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