Investigators probing series of ‘suspicious’ Labor Day brush fires near Healdsburg
Cal Fire is investigating a series of at least 14 roadside fires in and around the city of Healdsburg within a few hours’ time Monday night, inciting suspicion and alarm amid exceptionally dry conditions that have bred massive wildfires across California.
The largest of Monday’s fires was just under 2 acres in size, and many were much smaller, officials said. No injuries or structural damage was reported, and no evacuations were necessary, they said.
But for a community traumatized by recent, catastrophic wildfires, the threat remains distressing. Many residents speculated the fires could have been set intentionally.
Cal Fire personnel cautioned that no conclusions had been drawn about the cause of the fires or whether they were set by an arsonist. They said roadside fires have sometimes been caused by passing vehicles with failing brakes or dragging chains that created sparks that went on to start wildfires.
Seven of the fires were along a stretch of Mill Creek Road just past the edge of last year’s 55,209-acre Walbridge fire, which charred the coastal hills west of Healdsburg.
“People are understandably shocked just by the pure volume of the fires and the fact that anybody could deliberately do this to such an area,” said Dan Grout, who lost most of his family homestead to the lightning-sparked fire and is now co-leader of the community’s COPE group, or Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies.
Three other fires were doused on Lytton Springs Road, and one each were discovered on lower Westside Road, West Dry Creek Road, Bailhache Avenue south of Rio Lindo Academy, and Healdsburg Avenue near Passalacqua and Alexander Valley roads — the only one within Healdsburg city limits.
The proliferating fires drew crews and equipment from around the northern part of Sonoma County, including Cal Fire, Healdsburg Fire, Northern Sonoma County Fire, Cloverdale Fire, Sonoma County Fire District, Santa Rosa Fire and the Dry Creek Rancheria departments. A staging area was set up on at Highway 101 and Dry Creek Road, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville said, so that about 25 engines, some water tenders and bulldozers could be prioritized and deployed as the evening unfolded.
But as hard as everyone worked Monday night, “more work’s going on” trying to sort out what happened, Turbeville said Tuesday.
Though some of the fires were clustered together, all were being investigated individually to determine their precise origin and cause, officials said.
“Every fire is its own unique event,” Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said. “We would be remiss in not using the scientific method that we are trained to use as fire investigators.”
And though suspicion was running high, because of the rapid succession of Monday’s fires, “we don’t want to get sucked into a confirmation bias,” he said.
“It’s not infrequent to have fires that are lining up with one cause only to find out that it was some fluke or some curve ball” that results in a different outcome, he said.
The lead-off fire Monday was reported at 8:10 p.m. around the point where Bailhache Avenue transitions to Rio Lindo Avenue, across the Russian River from Camp Rose, east of the city.
About 20 minutes later, a second fire was reported on Lytton Springs Road, northwest of Healdsburg and west of the freeway.
Over the next two hours, 911 calls streamed in, with callers reporting smoke or flames, taking firefighters up Mill Creek Road, across the highway to Healdsburg Avenue and back over again to West Dry Creek. Sometimes firefighters would respond to a call and find several small fires in an area.
There could have been fires “that started and put themselves out before we got there,” adding to the confusion over the number of blazes, Cal Fire spokesman Tyree Zander said.
Turbeville also noted that the sequence in which the fires were reported didn’t necessarily reflect the order of their ignition, as reports depend on each blaze being observed and those spotting them having access to a phone.
The fires reported between 8:10 p.m. and about 10:42 p.m. were on both sides of town, along the scenic roads that pass by vineyards and rural estates, but in a generally random pattern, lopsided toward the west.
Many sites were miles apart, in areas with few homes, minimal traffic and no street lighting, and burned in swaths of dry grass, oak woodland or, farther up Mill Creek Road, in heavily timbered areas.
Grout said he was at home in his family’s temporary rental home on Chiquita Road after a weekend away. He had just put his daughter to bed and was in “a nice blissed out state,” when his emergency alert apps, including PulsePoint and Watch Duty, started sounding off, “Boom, boom, boom.”