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Monday updates: Walbridge and Hennessey fires continue to grow, Meyers at a standstill

8 PM: Walbridge and Hennessey fires continue to grow, Meyers at a standstill

Sonoma County’s Walbridge fire continued to gain ground Monday evening, increasing by nearly 2,500 acres over the span of a day to a total of 54,503 acres, Cal Fire said.

Crews were also able to increase their containment of the blaze to 7%, up from 5% containment Sunday night, the agency said.

Further west on the Sonoma Coast, firefighters were able to keep the Meyers fire at a standstill Monday afternoon, unchanged from the 2,360 acres reported Sunday night. Containment increased to 96% and fire officials said early Monday that they hoped to gain full control of the fire by the end of the day.

The Hennessey fire that straddled Napa and Lake counties stood at 294,602 acres and 29% containment Monday night. The fire had swallowed an additional 4,500 acres since Sunday evening, though firefighters were able to increase containment by about 7% in that timeframe as well, Cal Fire said.

The fires combined, known as the Lightning Complex fires, had destroyed 908 structures and damaged 248 buildings as of Monday evening, Cal Fire said. The fire personnel assigned to the blazes totaled nearly 2,200 people, Cal Fire said.

5:30 PM: Cal Fire chief describes progress on two fires

Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said at the afternoon media briefing there had been “no significant fire growth throughout the day” on either the Walbridge or the Meyers fires.

Participating in the virtual meeting from Guerneville, Nicholls said he was “happy to report we’re making good headway,” but also noted the fire had reached the valley floor at Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve.

“We’re working with State Parks to minimize the impact on the old growth redwoods in the park,” he said.

Asked when residents evacuated last week from communities along the lower Russian River might return to the area, Nicholls said it would be “overzealous” to expect reopenings in the next day or so.

“It depends on fire conditions,” he said, adding that the evacuation order should be lifted in no more than five days. “The fire’s going to dictate when it’s safe to get people back into the community.”

Most of the Walbridge fire’s 54,000-acre footprint was “burned over” as flames moved through days ago, leaving some “isolated hot spots,” Nicholls said

The most active part of the blaze is now burning within several 100 feet of the fire’s perimeter, he said.

4:30 PM: Rep. Jared Huffman hails good news about the Walbridge fire

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, expressed relief over the progress reported Monday after “several days of bad news” including “worrisome weather forecasts” of the dry lightning that triggered the scourge of wildfires.

“It feels like we are at the point where we are turning a corner on this fire and that’s good thing,” he said during the afternoon media briefing. “No one should be complacent but we should certainly take heart from the progress.”

In a press release, Huffman announced that his office has compiled a new Wildfire Resource Guide listing resources to help fire victims with their recovery.

“I want to ensure my constituents have the information and resources needed to safely navigate this fire in the face of a deadly pandemic and can quickly and easily recover when we come out on the other side,” he said.

The guide includes information on FEMA assistance and Small Business Association loans, as well as best practices to cope with the coronavirus.

The guide is available at https://huffman.house.gov/imo/media/doc/Wildfire%20Resource%20Guide%202020_FINAL.pdf

3:00 PM: Evacuation orders downgraded on the Sonoma Coast

Mandatory evacuations for the coastal area around the 2,360-acre Meyers fire and western edge of the larger Walbridge fire have been lifted, allowing 814 residents of the region west of Cazadero and north of the Russian River and Jenner to return home.

The evacuation order has been downgraded to a warning, however, and those who choose to go back home do so at their own risk. Residents still need to be alert to changing conditions and emergency notifications, officials said.

Sonoma County officials are setting up a re-entry point at Bodega Calvary Cemetery, 17499 Bodega Highway in Bodega, to be staffed from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. for returning residents to check in, obtain materials and personal protective equipment, like Tyvex suits, before going back home, Emergency Management Director Chris Godley said.

Those who do not believe their homes were affected by fire do not need to check in, authorities said.

The affected areas are Evacuation Zones 1D1 and 1D2 south of Fort Ross Road, west of Cazadero Highway, north of the Russian River and east of the Pacific Coast.

Returning residents must use Highway 1, as Highway 116 east of Cazadero Highway remains closed, the Sheriff’s Office said.

2:15 PM: Cal Fire asks donations be sent to charitable organizations, not base camps

People interested in donating goods during the LNU Complex fire should contact their local Red Cross or other charitable organizations, Cal Fire said in a press release Monday afternoon.

The agency did not have the infrastructure to accept donations at incident base camps, which are being regulated to adhere to coronavirus-related protocols, though the agency said they “greatly appreciate the public’s support and desire to donate.”

12:30 PM: Cal Fire declares victory over Meyers fire, feels positive about Walbridge fight

Cal Fire officials painted a positive picture for control of the Walbridge and Meyers fires in Sonoma County Monday, even as the containment numbers remain low.

Favorable weather with no lightning strikes overnight into Monday morning gave crews time to bolster bulldozer lines and shore up areas of containment around edges of the Walbridge blaze.

By midday, Cal Fire had Walbridge at 54,068 acres with 5 percent contained. It grew less than 3,000 acres overnight as a storm brought a tiny bit of rain but none of the lightning that sparked what is now the second-largest fire in the state, when combined with the Hennessey-Napa County fires.

In total, the Lightning Complex fire has burned 350,030 acres and is 22 percent contained, Chief Sean Kavanaugh said. The Hennessey section is 26 percent contained.

He declared victory over the Meyers fire, north of Jenner, which has been essentially halted at 2,360 acres and 95 percent contained.

“That’s what we’re calling a win,” he said.

Fire officials announced a fifth death in connection with the fires, the second in Solano County. Three people have died in Napa County. Cal Fire officials had no further details about the latest death.

Section chief Chris Watters said with bulldozers, engine crews and hand crews, good progress has been made “connecting the dots” between already-achieved but unconnected fire breaks along the perimeter of the Walbridge fire.

The growth overnight occurred in a similar direction as the previous nights, Division Chief Ben Nicholls said, into Dry Creek Valley and backing toward Russian River communities of Guerneville, Rio Nido and Cazadero.

But he said Cal Fire has the resources to protect those areas, expressing confidence that – for now at least – those areas aren’t in imminent danger.

Sonoma County authorities were looking at opening Local Assistance Centers to help residents begin to manage their immediate needs and potential losses.

“Recovery starts today,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore. He said the county is exploring opening help centers in Healdsburg and Guerneville.

Cal Fire damage assessment teams were to be on the ground in Sonoma County Monday documenting structure losses and damage, Kavanaugh said.

Five teams will scour the burned areas and tally what has been destroyed or damaged and document what kind of property has burned: homes, commercial structures, barns, outbuildings, shops, boats.

Then they enter the information into a database for compilation, Kavanaugh said.

“I’m hoping to have a snapshot of by tonight,” he said.

Those numbers haven’t been broken out by county or by fire.

10:45 AM: Damage assessment crews to be out in Sonoma County today documenting losses

Cal Fire officials said solid stands against the Walbridge fire overnight and into Monday can be attributed to higher humidity, lower temperatures and none of the forecast lightning strikes that had firefighters concerned about even more fires sparking in the west Sonoma County hills.

More good news: The National Weather Service has canceled the red flag warning for fire danger, cutting it eight hours short.

“Weak cells are still over the North Bay, however most moisture has moved north of our area and instability has decreased, giving us confidence to let the warning expire early,” the NWS said in a statement canceling the warning around 10 a.m. instead of the original 5 p.m. end.

At a morning Sonoma County update, Cal Fire officials said favorable weather overnight helped crews keep fire growth to a minimum and allowed them to strengthen fire lines and bulldozer paths. The Walbridge fire grew about 3,000 acres overnight.

As of Monday morning, the Walbridge fire was estimated at 54,068 acres with 5 percent containment.

The Meyers fire was nearly contained at 2,360 acres – and fire Chief Ben Nicholls said it may be completely contained today.

“We experienced no significant growth of the fire last night on the Sonoma County side of the incident,” he said. “With that, there was an increase in moisture in the air last night and today that has lessened the fire action on the fire line.”

Cal Fire incident commander Sean Kavanaugh said he is optimistic about the battle against Walbridge flames today.

“We’re taking advantage of the weather,” he said, saying he had spoken to firefighters this morning about it. “We can’t pass up those opportunities.”

Kavanaugh said five damage assessment teams would be on the ground in Sonoma County to begin documenting structure loss and damage.

“We don’t have accurate clear numbers for Walbridge and Sonoma County yet,” he said.

Those figures could come as soon as this afternoon once crews begin tallying damage, or more likely tomorrow.

A total of 560 structures released Sunday by Cal Fire spokesman Will Powers wasn’t accurate, he said.

9:30 AM: Video shows Walbridge fire in Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve

Photojournalist Beth Schlanker spent Sunday at Armstrong Woods in Guerneville:

7:30 AM: School closures in west Sonoma County due to evacuations

Healdsburg School District operations are closed Monday because of evacuations.

Early Monday, the Sonoma County Office of Education announced the district cancelled distance learning due to evacuations related to the Walbridge Fire.

Others previously cancelled are:

• El Molino High School (West Sonoma County High School District)

• Forestville School District

• Guerneville School District

• Healdsburg School District

• Monte Rio School District

• Montgomery School District

Also, Fort Ross school district is in or near the evacuation area, but is not yet in session. Families are advised to check with the school district for updates about distance learning.

7:15 AM: Lightning Complex gains less than 3,000 acres overnight

The Lightning Complex fire gained less than 3,000 acres overnight, fire officials said, and feared lightning strikes that could start more fires never materialized.

Storms that passed over Sonoma and Napa counties dropped small amounts of rain -- a tenth of an inch in Santa Rosa and .03 in Cloverdale -- that likely wasn’t much help for firefighters.

But more importantly, worrisome lightning never came. Lightning strikes started the fires a week ago in the hills in Napa and Sonoma counties.

“That’s a pretty substantial victory last night, considering all things,” said Cal Fire spokesman Jay Tracy early Monday. “If we did have any lightning strikes, they were caught pretty quickly.”

Cal Fire’s morning update showed the small growth overnight leaves the group of fires including Sonoma’s Walbridge and Meyers and Napa’s Hennessey fires at about 350,030 acres overall. They are 22 percent contained.

No new evacuation orders or warnings were issued overnight.

Late last night, the Walbridge was estimated at 54,068 acres with five percent containment.

Firefighters had the Meyers blaze, at about 2,360 acres, nearly under control at 95 percent and expected full containment Monday.

The Walbridge fire had destroyed 560 structures and five were lost in Meyers.

The Hennessey fire, which has stretched over five counties, was estimated at 293,602 acres Sunday night with 26 percent containment.

National Weather Service meteorologists expect a few lingering showers across Sonoma and Napa counties Monday morning, while the red flag warning for dry fire conditions remains in effect until 5 p.m. Monday.

Please check back later. This story will be updated as news develops.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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