Fires in fourth day threaten thousands of homes in Sonoma, Napa counties
Unpredictable wildfires prompted new evacuation orders and advisories Wednesday for thousands of residents in Sonoma and Napa counties as shifting winds frustrated firefighters attempting for a third day to get a handle on deadly blazes, which under windier conditions once again threatened more urban areas.
Flames encroached on the historic town of Sonoma, prompting crews to plow a protective barrier around the historic General Vallejo home and sending deputies with loudspeakers to the central plaza, shouting warnings to leave.
In Calistoga, police went door to door, ordering the town's 5,000 residents to get out. The escape for some was along roads walled by flames. Late Wednesday, the city was the only community in the region entirely under a mandatory evacuation order.
Firefighters attacked trouble spots in eastern Santa Rosa - in Bennett Valley, Oakmont and Trione-Annadel State Park, which together generated a towering plume that could be seen late Wednesday across the Bay Area.
To the north, residents of Geyserville evacuated as firefighters braced for a tough battle into the night on a blaze burning in the Mayacamas Mountains.
Among the biggest fears was that one or more of the fires could merge amid overnight winds, creating a monster inferno.
“There are number of fires burning out of control right now,” said Todd Derum, division chief for Cal Fire's Sonoma County division. “All of them have a potential to grow together.”
The exact paths of the 11 fires in Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Solano and Mendocino counties was uncertain. Together they burned nearly 140,000 acres and claimed at least 23 lives, 13 of which happened in the Tubbs fire that ripped into Santa Rosa from Calistoga early Monday, destroying thousands of homes and businesses. An active finger of the 31,000-acre Tubbs fire continued to burn east of Windsor, from Shiloh ridge to Chalk Hill Road and Knights Valley.
29,000 homes threatened
In that fire alone, more than 29,000 homes, most in Santa Rosa, remained under threat, according to Cal Fire. More than 570 structures have been destroyed.
“There are a ton of houses out there,” Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Mark Basque said. “This is an unprecedented event.”
The largest fire in the region was the Atlas fire, mostly in Napa County, which consumed more than 42,000 acres.
Containment for most remained at or near zero. Their causes remain undetermined.
Jittery residents from Rohnert Park to Ukiah hosed down rooftops and packed cars with suitcases in preparation for the worst. As they did, a northeast breeze kicked up, scattering dry leaves and shattering nerves. Gusts up to 50 mph were expected.
“I suspect tonight is going to be busy,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said. “The wind's really scaring everyone.”
Firefighters responding to Gov. Jerry Brown's emergency declaration converged on the region from across the West, joined by police from around Northern California and National Guard troops.
Some watched over desolate, ash-covered neighborhoods as displaced occupants huddled in temporary shelters. Five people were arrested in Sonoma County on suspicion of looting, authorities said.
Shelters in Santa Rosa were at two-thirds capacity.
Four fires raged in the Sonoma Valley alone, threatening communities from multiple directions, taking out part of Glen Ellen and Kenwood and leveling some homes in Oakmont. Among those who lost their homes was Susan Gorin, the county supervisor representing Sonoma Valley and east Santa Rosa.
Wine crop threatened
Vineyards at Gundlach Bundschu winery were torched and vintners throughout the wine industry worried about smoke taint.
“If you have grapes hanging on the vine and it is smothered in ash and smoke it will pick up taint,” said Healdsburg winemaker Rick Moshin. “It's a concern now.”
On Valetti Drive near the Sonoma Charter School, 5-year-old Alexa Vasquez, wearing a mask over her nose and mouth, brought a bag of Legos to her father. Francisco Vasquez, 33, took the toys and added them to bags of clothing and a stroller to be stowed in their SUV.
One-year-old Victoria was napping inside as the family prepared to go, although they weren't sure which direction to head.
“It started getting freaky. They started closing, closing, closing road after road,” Francisco Vasquez said.
Helicopters doused burning woodlands in Bennett and Sonoma valleys while air tankers dropped red retardant on the Pocket fire near Geyserville.
Backfire generates plume
A large plume of smoke over southeast Santa Rosa late Wednesday afternoon was part of a backfire operation, to slow the spread of a blaze threatening Bennett Valley, said Bennett Valley Battalion Chief Darren DeCarli. With the fire slowly advancing toward Annadel Heights and Bennett Valley, firefighters Wednesday used bulldozers to cut 30-foot-wide swath through the brush and curving around homes. The line stretched some miles, from Lake Ilsanjo high up in Annadel to close to the Bennett Valley fire house.