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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.

Map showing the confirmed vegetation fires in the Healdsburg area, Sept. 6, 2021. (Dennis Bolt for the Press Democrat)
Map showing the confirmed vegetation fires in the Healdsburg area, Sept. 6, 2021. (Dennis Bolt for the Press Democrat)

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.”

He was soon in his car, up around the corner checking out fires on Lytton Springs Road, roughly between the airport and the corner with Chiquita. Moments after he arrived back home, another fire broke out behind his house, near Chiquita and Maybee Lane.

He thinks, if an arsonist were involved, he must have passed that person on the road. He said he called 911 to report a pickup that he saw.

The smallest burn areas were surrounded by trees and barely visible from streets with parked Cal Fire vehicles being the only indication fires occurred.

Chiquita Road resident Don Watson, 78, lives across the street from where the fire occurred, and said one of his neighbors asked to borrow a shovel to fight the waist-high flames. They already had expanded by the time Watson exited his home with the tool for his frantic neighbor, and all he could do was watch the fire spread before firefighters arrived moments later.

“I lived here close to 40 years and nothing like this has ever happened before,” Watson said.

A different neighbor, who identified himself only as Michael, said he and his girlfriend returned home from dinner in downtown Healdsburg and were inside for five minutes when the fire erupted. The couple already has a fire break around their home, but they still were compelled to hose down their property.

“It was either fight or lose your residence,” said Michael, 48. “It was going pretty good. It wasn’t windy, so we were lucky.”

During this time, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office had its helicopter circling overhead, helping to scout new fires and guide crews down below, as well as watching for vehicles leaving the area, sheriff’s Sgt. Juan Valencia said.

He said patrol deputies on the ground made a few traffic stops, but because of the ongoing grape harvest, there were people coming and going, and anything people may have heard on the scanner or through the rumor mill about suspect vehicles was probably just speculative at the time, he said.

Grout, meanwhile, became increasingly worried about the Mill Creek Road community, as he heard of more and more fires along the road. After consulting with Turbeville and his COPE co-director, he alerted members that evacuations weren’t yet needed, but folks should be ready to go if conditions changed.

Then he drove into the woods to see what he could find and saw that some of the fires would occasionally flare up, enough that several volunteers worked around the edges using available hand tools to make sure flames didn’t get away or work their way into the tree canopy.

“A light wind, and it could have gone sideways pretty quickly,” Grout said. “Luckily, it was pretty calm, and they had a lot of resources out there, and they hit them pretty hard.”

The sporadic flames that popped up around Healdsburg stoked latent, but familiar, anxiety in nearby communities, as well.

Melissa Geissenger, a 37-year-old who lost her Santa Rosa home in the 2017 Tubbs fire, felt “fear, mixed with a familiar sense of urgency to prepare, mixed with anger” when she learned that firefighters were knocking down more than a dozen small fires a few miles north of her.

As a survivor of a previous fire, she said she’s always prepared for the worst,. And she was angry, she explained, because she suspected that the flames were sparked intentionally.

But Healdsburg City Councilwoman Ariel Kelley echoed fire officials’ concerns about speculation concerning arson before the investigation developed further.

“That said, it was clear that this was a very bizarre set of circumstances — unusual compared to other vegetation fire incidents that we've seen in the community over the last several years,” Kelley said.

As theories spread online in the hours following the fires about how the fires started, Kelley cautioned the community against relying on police and emergency dispatch scanners as an official source of information, saying that radio communications are “really not meant for public consumption” and “can lead to misinformation.”

“It's really not meant for public consumption in terms of going online and speculating about the suspect or description of the car or other things,” she said.

Turbeville agreed that the “sheer number” and random locations were notable, adding, “what’s possible and what’s probable” are different things.

“That’s what makes this unique,” he said. “You had multiple roads and a relatively concise time frame, too.”

Said Grout, “This wasn’t the route of someone who was driving home from the lake or something.”

In a Monday night Facebook post, State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, urged residents in his hometown to “be on the lookout for suspicious activity and report it immediately to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.”

Healdsburg also called in extra police and firefighters to work on Tuesday “and we’ll likely stay at that point for a while,” said City Manager Jeff Kay.

Staff Writer Emily Wilder contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writers Mary Callahan at mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com, Matt Pera at matthew.pera@pressdemocrat.com and Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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