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Nearly 90,000 people ordered to flee potential path of Kincade fire

Nearly 84,000 Sonoma County residents - almost a fifth of the population - were ordered to leave their homes Saturday under threat of catastrophic wildfire, an unprecedented evacuation that jammed roadways ahead of a powerful windstorm that authorities feared could drive the uncontrolled Kincade fire all the way to the ocean.

The mass departures from Healdsburg and Windsor west to the Sonoma Coast escalated tensions in a fire-scarred region already on edge following two PG&E blackouts in a single week and the ominous return of smoke and ash that darkened the sun.

Authorities warned the public to brace for winds of historic proportions Saturday night, with gusts up to 80 mph, that could rapidly send a wildfire already blazing in the hills east of Geyserville into neighborhoods and business districts along the Highway 101 corridor and beyond.

“We all need to be aware that this fire, when the winds pick up tonight, can move extremely fast,” Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said Saturday. “There is no part of the county between the fire and the coast that is safe from this fire.”

Residents, if not always delighted, were largely compliant and orderly in their exodus, public safety officials said.

Healdsburg-area resident Marci Cook said she had not seen a wildfire so close to home in 35 years of living in Healdsburg - not even the 17,357-acre Pocket fire east of Geyserville that was part of the October 2017 North Bay firestorm.

“The Pocket fire was threatening, but not like this,” Cook said as she prepared to leave her small ranch at the base of Dry Creek Valley with a menagerie of horses, birds and other animals.

The Kincade fire, at nearly 26,000 acres after three days, was just 11 percent contained Saturday night, though staffing on the fire lines had more than doubled in 24 hours as fire crews gathered to mount a defense in the face of extreme winds set to arrive overnight.

Four super tankers attacked the flames from the air, painting the landscape with heavy red fire retardant in a last-ditch effort to establish some measure of control around the edges before sustained, high-speed winds were expected to buffet the region on Saturday night and Sunday with gusts forecast to reach up to 70 to 80 mph at the highest elevations overnight.

Public officials warned the winds could propel embers more than a mile ahead of the advancing fire, each starting individual fires in turn.

The aggressive evacuation plan - the largest in Sonoma Country history - was designed to prepare residents for the worst-case scenario.

State Sen. Mike McGuire said late Saturday that he appreciated how inconvenient and uncomfortable it was for so many people to have to leave home and said he also understood “there’s a lot of anxiety and anger.”

“Who would have ever thought we would be here again, just 24 months after the firestorm? And it’s an incredibly emotional and trying time for so many,” he said.

But McGuire said the lessons of that event were what informed the evacuations, as well as the “flood” of resources coming into the county, including the National Guard, 150 CHP officers, scores of officers from California police agencies and “an enormous amount of firefighting resources that have arrived and will be arriving over the next 12 to 24 hours.”

“There is a reason why there is an ‘all hands on deck’ issued, and all levels of government are coordinating and working together to be able to beat this fire back in some of the most challenging fire conditions that we’ve seen literally in years,” he said.

Authorities said they’d learned from California’s many recent deadly fires to take advantage of the luxury of time to get civilians out of harm’s way in advance of anticipated flames.

A preemptive PG&E blackout that put nearly 96,000 Sonoma County households in the dark late Saturday was just one more reason to start the evacuations early, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.

In 2017, when multiple wildfires broke out while most people slept amid extreme winds similar to those forecast this weekend, public safety personnel were focused solely on trying to evacuate residents in the fire zone rather than fighting the fire.

Sonoma County lost 24 lives. More than 5,300 homes were destroyed.

“This event, unlike 2017, we have had, and we continue to have, time - the opportunity to provide time for residents to prepare and evacuate in an orderly fashion,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, board chairman, said during a Saturday evening news conference.

Still, some people refused to leave when ordered, a source of concern and frustration to public safety officials. They included people like the Mignalia family, residents of rural Healdsburg’s Bailhache Avenue for five generations, back to 1897.

John Mignalia Sr., 96, and his boys - Francis, Paul, George and John Jr. - planned to stick out the windstorm, ignoring orders to leave so they could fight the fire if needed and defend the family home. They sent their sister and mother to safety in Santa Rosa.

“It’s gonna have to jump the Russian River to get here,” John Mignalia Jr. said. “These winds, they can’t be anything I’ve experienced, if it’s gonna be that bad. You’d think the apocalypse is upon us.”

Public officials repeatedly attempted to disabuse residents of the notion that what lay ahead was anything they could face on their own. People who refused to leave an area could find themselves in need of rescue down the line, Essick said.

“We have a lot of work on our hands,” he said, “and we’re not going to go door-to-door dragging people out of their houses, I can tell you that.

“But we are trying to encourage people to get out on their own and to not try to fight this. It is truly a selfish act to stay at home and try to fight this, at this point. You’re placing other people at risk.”

The evacuations started Saturday morning with a stunning announcement by the sheriff and Cal Fire ordering the entire towns of Healdsburg and Windsor to clear out, moving 50,000 people from the potential path of a wind-driven fire.

Then came news of successive evacuation warnings that were soon converted to mandatory orders covering a broad swath of west Sonoma County. By 10:30 p.m., residents in west and north Santa Rosa - including the neighborhoods of Coffey Park and Fountaingrove, leveled by the 2017 fires - were among 70,500 people advised to prepare to evacuate, if conditions changed for the worse.

By late Saturday, the evacuation zone reached from north Santa Rosa and Larkfield west across the Russian River Valley to the shore of the Pacific Ocean. It included Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center and the Sonoma County jail, from which inmates were moved to detention in Alameda County.

Essick said he had been apprehensive early in the day about the degree to which the public would comply with the evacuations, but was pleasantly pleased by what he observed from the air a short time later.

“When I got on that helicopter, and I flew around and saw what Highway 101 looked like, and I saw people in Healdsburg and Windsor packing their cars, I said to myself, ‘Wow, people are listening.’?”

Healdsburg Mayor David Hagele praised city staff for their role in executing a smooth evacuation, calling the efforts “incredible.” He pointed to the city’s senior center, where staff called each of the 80 seniors signed up for the city’s ride-share program. If they didn’t answer, staff called an emergency contact.

“By the end, every single one was accounted for,” Hagele said.

Kathryn Huck, who spent several days hosting her son and his friends in Healdsburg after they evacuated Geyserville, found herself under orders to leave home Saturday. This morning, Huck realized they would all have to depart after mandatory evacuation orders came down for a wide area surrounding the Kincade fire.

Still, Huck said she’s not too worried, though she was planning to leave and stay with family in Santa Rosa.

“I live in a vineyard where I watered and I’m sure the vineyard watered before, so I don’t feel really threatened,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249.

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