Firefighters try to keep Kincade fire from reaching Healdsburg and Windsor; 190,000 evacuated in Sonoma County
Thousands of firefighters on Sunday held back a raging wildfire fueled by fierce and erratic winds from making a wholesale incursion into densely populated neighborhoods of Windsor and Healdsburg, then dug in to do it all over again as the fire flared overnight.
The Kincade fire destroyed more homes Sunday, but the toll of destruction as of late Sunday - 94 structures lost - was not the horror imagined when authorities ordered everyone in Geyserville, Healdsburg and Windsor and all the way to the Sonoma Coast to evacuate in advance of the windstorm, a historic displacement of an estimated 190,000 people.
But there was no break yet for legions of firefighters brought to Sonoma County from across California and beyond, nor was there any sense of when people might be allowed to return home.
“The thing that people need to know is that the threat is real,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, who spent 24 hours with the firefighters in the Alexander Valley. “That doesn’t invoke fear; it invokes vigilance.”
The Kincade fire still burned ferociously after nightfall Sunday across about 54,300 acres, continuing to menace hillside communities on the eastern outskirts of Windsor and making a run toward north Santa Rosa neighborhoods still recovering from the devastating 2017 fires. Containment of the blaze dropped from 11% to 5% on Sunday.
The fire and a planned power shut-off in advance of the windstorm combined to create mass disruption of life in Sonoma County.
All 40 Sonoma County public school districts canceled classes for nearly 70,000 students Monday and Tuesday. Two major hospitals in Santa Rosa, Sutter and Kaiser medical centers, have transferred patients elsewhere.
PG&E turned off power to 93,000 customers in Sonoma County, leaving about 300,000 people in the dark. Another shut-off could come as early as Tuesday, meaning some people could be without power for a week.
Flights were canceled in and out of the Charles M. Schulz-?Sonoma County Airport. Businesses across the county closed and told workers to stay home.
Gov. Gavin Newsom returned to Sonoma County on Sunday to tour emergency shelters in Petaluma, his second visit to the area after the Kincade fire ignited late Wednesday night in the Geysers geothermal area of the Mayacamas Mountains east of Geyserville.
“I’m sorry you are going through this,” he told Pathena Byerley, who had arrived just after midnight from Guerneville on Sunday morning. “It’s not easy.”
“No, it’s not,” Byerley said.
Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick acknowledged the evacuations were far more than an inconvenience. But he remained steadfast in his confidence they made the right choice to get people out.
“We want to get people back to their homes as quickly as possible - there’s a lot of anxiety and fear out there,” Essick said.
On Sunday, Essick visited evacuation shelters to talk with the displaced and also took a helicopter flight to survey the fire from the air. As the helicopter circled back to the airport, Essick watched an air tanker dropping its load just east of Fitch Mountain - where a major firefight was taking place to keep the blaze out of Healdsburg - its last mission for the day before returning to Sacramento. Looking down at the flames encroaching on Windsor, Essick shook his head. “I know they can’t,” he said of the tankers, “but I wish they could just keep hitting this fire all night.”
Before dawn Sunday, one mighty gust reached 93 mph in the hills northeast of Healdsburg.
The wind drove the Kincade fire from its southern flank in the Mayacamas Mountains back down into the Alexander Valley where firefighters had beaten it back just three days ago.
Eric LaFranchi and his son Logan had stayed on the family’s cattle ranch in Knights Valley and had been keeping watch on the fire burning deep in the hills north of their land. The fire had seemed so distant, and they knew the ridges it would have to cross from Pine Flat Road. But suddenly, during the windy predawn hours, fire was all around.
They headed toward Calistoga but were thwarted by a fallen tree. So they turned back and drove into the inferno on both sides of Highway 128, a frightening drive with LaFranchi watching the taillights of his son’s truck ahead.
“We almost didn’t get out,” he said.
The fire burned across the family’s ranch, destroying two mobile homes and three houses, including the one where LaFranchi grew up and where he then raised his own children.
Miraculously, the herd of about 600 cattle survived, and LaFranchi credited the animals’ resourcefulness.
“Sadness - that’s the emotion I’m feeling,” said LaFranchi. “Not shock because I knew something like this was possible.”