Inside the fight to save Windsor from the Kincade fire
Flames were sweeping down the grassy slopes of Foothill Regional Park toward the near-empty town of Windsor when Sonoma County Fire District Battalion Chief Mike Elson drove up Cayetano Court and realized the moment they had all been bracing for had come.
Two-story flames and glowing firebrands whirled through the smoke-darkened skies, setting fences and trees ablaze, lighting landscaping and, soon, sparking fires at several homes in the neighborhood, as well.
The marauding Kincade fire had been bearing down on Windsor all morning, burning its way through a rural landscape across a wide area north of town, where an army of firefighting forces stood ready to face it late in the morning of Oct. 27.
But it would be northeast Windsor, in and around hundreds of homes in the Foothill Oaks Estates, where they confronted the biggest threat - a near-overwhelming battle to keep the blaze from taking the neighborhood and the town.
Scores of firefighters took part in the initial attack, making a stand amid the chaos, barely daring to hope they would prevent the fire from ripping through town, let alone sweeping across Highway 101 and burning a trail of destruction all the way to the coast.
“That fire coming off of Foothill Park, that fire was coming off that hill very quickly, and it was massive,” said Elson, who was leading a nine-engine task force but eventually took command of the Foothills campaign. “It was a massive firefight. There were flames up over the tops of houses ... and those are mostly two-story houses, so they were 30, 40 feet in the air.”
But in what became a pivotal juncture in the two-week effort to beat back Sonoma County's largest wildfire ever, the battle for Windsor spared every single home in the town of 27,000 people and substantially curbed the fire's spread.
Sonoma County fire officials credit 200 firefighters or more, both local and from outside the area, who jammed into the neighborhood and simply refused to give way to the flames.
They fought house-to-house, confronting the blaze so aggressively they pushed the boundaries of personal safety to the very limit - to the point Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine said he came close to ordering crews to fall back in a few cases.
“That was very dangerous firefighting in there,” Heine said. “To enter someone's backyard, where everything in their backyard was on fire, meant they didn't know if they could get themselves back out. There was just that spirit of, ‘We're not letting this fire come to our town.'?”
It came frighteningly close, making innumerable forays into the Foothills area, a neighborhood of several hundred homes tucked up against the hills of the regional park east of Arata and Hembree lanes in the northeast section of Windsor.
Particularly vulnerable were about 150 homes arrayed around cul-de-sacs, many of which had backyards exposed to the park or connected landscape, often separated from the parklands only by wire fencing.
But ferocious winds that sent sparks and flaming debris well ahead of the fire front that day meant anywhere in the neighborhood or even within a mile or two was at risk of blown embers and fire starts.
Were the fire to get established in even two or three homes, generating intense heat, large flames and embers, “We were likely to lose that whole neighborhood,” Heine and others said.
Residents who returned to the area days later found singed trees and burned gardens, lengths of fencing turned to charcoal, ash-covered ground where the flames had spread directly from the blackened hills of Foothill park into their backyards. There were scores of places - outdoor sofa cushions, patches of grass, Halloween decorations - that had caught fire and been put out.
Firefighters had to kick down doors in a few cases to douse attic fires after embers ignited rooftops or burned fencing up to exterior walls like they did at Michelle and Brad Stibi's place on Valle Vista Court.
“We were the loop on national TV,” Michelle Stibi, 50, said, her expression suggesting she was none too impressed with the celebrity brought by widely shared footage of the firefight in her yard. “This is going to be a concrete jungle when Brad gets done with it.”
Fire officials say it would have been worse if it weren't for the stucco and tile or concrete roof construction that dominates the Spanish-styled Foothill Oaks Estates subdivision that makes up most of the area between Hembree Lane and Vinecrest Road, where the firefight took place.
“Some of those embers were still getting up into those eaves,” Elson said, “but construction features that they built into those neighborhoods definitely helped.”