Subscribe

Fires grow, evacuation orders expand in Sonoma County as crews struggle in sweltering heat

LNU Lightning Complex

Cal Fire has dubbed five fires in Napa County and two in Sonoma County as the LNU Lightning Complex, a nod to their likely origins during a rare summer lightning storm that swept through the region on Sunday and Monday.

Here’s where each stood at 7 p.m. Wednesday:

SONOMA COUNTY

Walbridge fire (formerly the 13-4 fire): 14,000 acres west of Healdsburg. 0% contained.

Meyers fire (formerly the 11-16 fire): 2,500 acres north of Jenner. 0% contained.

NAPA COUNTY

Hennessey fire: 100,000 acres near Hennessey Ridge Road, has merged with the Gamble, Green and Markley fires. 1 structure, two outbuildings destroyed. 0% contained.

Spanish fire: 4,100 acres near Spanish Flat. 0% contained.

Morgan fire: 3,500 acres in Napa and Lake counties. 0% contained.

Source: Cal Fire

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.”

LNU Lightning Complex

Cal Fire has dubbed five fires in Napa County and two in Sonoma County as the LNU Lightning Complex, a nod to their likely origins during a rare summer lightning storm that swept through the region on Sunday and Monday.

Here’s where each stood at 7 p.m. Wednesday:

SONOMA COUNTY

Walbridge fire (formerly the 13-4 fire): 14,000 acres west of Healdsburg. 0% contained.

Meyers fire (formerly the 11-16 fire): 2,500 acres north of Jenner. 0% contained.

NAPA COUNTY

Hennessey fire: 100,000 acres near Hennessey Ridge Road, has merged with the Gamble, Green and Markley fires. 1 structure, two outbuildings destroyed. 0% contained.

Spanish fire: 4,100 acres near Spanish Flat. 0% contained.

Morgan fire: 3,500 acres in Napa and Lake counties. 0% contained.

Source: Cal Fire

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins similarly acknowledged the painful situation so many of her west county constituents faced, speaking “person to person” during the Wednesday press briefing.

“You are potentially displaced from your home, not knowing if you’re ever going to be able to return to it, stalking the online fire cameras, trying to comb social media and press and, you know, radio for any kind of a clue as to what the fire is going to do, and unfortunately, we’re in a very volatile phase of this fire, as you heard from Paul Lowenthal, and unfortunately there’s a lot of unknown in the next 12 to 24 hours,” said Hopkins, whose own Forestville home was right outside the mandatory evacuation line and in the warning area.

Fire crews were working desperately to keep the Walbridge fire from spreading south into the communities on the north bank of the Russian River, in part by holding Sweetwater Springs Road north of Guerneville.

The fire had burned up to the road Tuesday night, creating a fire line along the road, which carries traffic straight into Guerneville, and firefighters sought to keep that buffer intact Wednesday.

But at least nine structures had been lost along the north side of the road between Tuesday and Wednesday, as flames tore across ridge lines, including two engulfed shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday.

A Cal Fire crew stood sentinel on overlooking one ridge, before late afternoon winds picked up, pushing the fire and smoke east toward Westside Road.

Gold Ridge Fire Chief Shepley Schroth-Cary said the main goal was to protect structures and keep the fire north of Sweetwater Springs Road and west of Westside Road. Among those structures was Bryce Austin’s home, which stood unscathed, though his 300-acre property was scorched.

The property has been in the family for 150 years, Austin’s friend Joe Messina said before turning to thank Cal Fire firefighters and heading down the mountain.

On the east side of the fire, near West Dry Creek Road, yellow police tape hung on mailboxes and clung to address signs outside of wineries and vineyard-adjacent neighborhoods.

The markers, meant to signal confirmed evacuations, swayed in a gentle breeze early Wednesday afternoon, giving little hint at the fires burning in various directions.

One homeowner had rigged a lawn sprinkler to the top of an outbuilding, soaking the asphalt shingles as an extra measure of precaution.

Three miles up Mill Creek Road, crews with full engines from Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Rincon Valley, Sonoma Valley and Santa Rosa were staged at Wallace Creek Road, before departing at 5:45 p.m. on a mission to protect homes.

Others, from Graton Rancheria and Schell Vista, would join them.

A neon orange sun shone through the smoke and falling ash, and on emerald redwoods that lined Mill Creek Road. Firefighters watched and waited, their engines on.

Further up the road, they would line a makeshift shoulder under a darkening sky.

By 6:30 p.m., somewhere beyond the wall of redwoods flanking Mill Creek Road, an occasional crackle and pop signaled the fire’s approach.

Fire crews retreated back toward Westside Road.

A couple of firefighters from Santa Rosa brought up the rear, warning of danger lurking ahead.

“It’s a death trap,” one said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine