Fires grow, evacuation orders expand in Sonoma County as crews struggle in sweltering heat
Wildfires that turned the skies dark and raged out of control for a third day Wednesday sent thousands more people fleeing their homes across the North Bay, as structures went up in flames and firefighters struggled to gain any ground in sweltering conditions.
The Walbridge fire burning in the hills west of Healdsburg prompted city officials to issue an evacuation warning for all Healdsburg residents late Wednesday, following orders and warnings Tuesday that covered a wide swath of the lower Russian River and mountains stretching out to the coast.
Onshore winds turned the eastern flank of the Walbridge fire in a more easterly direction, raising the possibility that flames burning for two days in the Mill Creek drainage could eventually make their way toward town.
Fire crews, their ranks stretched thin by scores of lightning-sparked fires burning around Northern California since Monday, have been outmatched, as wind and dense fuels contributed to explosive growth on fires around the area throughout the day.
Fires in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties had torched a combined 124,100 acres by late Wednesday, including 16,500 acres in the forested hills of west Sonoma County, where flames 100 feet high burned above the town of Guerneville, creeping into the northern reaches of the 805-acre Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.
The Walbridge fire, centered north of the adjoining Austin Creek State Recreation Area and burning mostly south and southeast, had grown to 14,000 acres on its own by 6:30 p.m., a more than nine-fold increase in the previous 24 hours.
The Meyers fire, burning north of the town of Jenner on the Sonoma Coast, had grown from 25 acres to 2,500, Cal Fire said.
“That fire exploded last night, and this fire blew up this morning,” Cal Fire incident spokesman Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa’s assistant fire marshal, said Wednesday from the edge of the Walbridge fire on Sweetwater Springs Road near Guerneville. “Overnight, we’re getting significant fire behavior because we’re not getting that (moisture) recovery that we’re used to. Our humidity, in some cases, actually lowered at night.”
A third, small fire off Skaggs Springs Road closer to Lake Sonoma also broke out Wednesday, fire officials said. Scarce air resources were reportedly hitting it during the day Wednesday in an effort dampen its growth before it could merge with the Walbridge fire.
In Lake County, another fire erupted, prompting large-scale evacuations, including the entirety of the Hidden Valley Lake subdivision north of Middletown, on Highway 29.
And in Napa County, a complex of at least five major fires stretched from the northern end of Lake Berryessa to Interstate 80 near Vacaville, where flames consumed homes overnight Tuesday and jumped the interstate Wednesday afternoon. Angwin and St. Helena Hospital were both ordered to evacuate late Wednesday.
In contrast to the wind-driven fires that have brought repeated disaster to the region in recent years, this week’s incidents are grinding, ground wars in remote, often inaccessible areas of dense timber that haven’t burned in decades, in most cases, and thus create intense heat, torching trees and running up canyons so that fires spread in many directions at once, Lowenthal said.
“We’re seeing erratic fire behavior in Napa County, here locally in Sonoma County, especially, as the weather conditions deteriorate in the afternoon, and we’re seeing new starts,” Lowenthal said during an afternoon press briefing.
Cal Fire and Sonoma County emergency officials for a second day issued successive evacuation orders and warnings for the Walbridge and Meyers fires, covering more residents to the south and east, and north along the coast, taking in more than 15,000 people by Wednesday afternoon.
Then Wednesday evening, the warning was issued for the city of Healdsburg, which still lies well east of the Walbridge fire but was put on notice given lessons learned during California’s new era of catastrophic wildfires, many of which have occurred in Sonoma County and neighboring counties.
State Sen. Mike McGuire said even without the hurricane-force winds that have visited the county during past wildfires, the potential for damage and loss remains real, as evidenced by a major run made by the Hennessy fire late Tuesday in Napa County. That blaze broke toward Vacaville during an explosive late night run and on Wednesday reached Interstate 80, shutting down the highway.
“This is an incredibly challenging time for so many in Sonoma County,” McGuire said. “We have seen disaster after disaster, year after year, and it brings back so many challenging memories.”