Sonoma County’s worst natural disaster: Firestorm leaves 7 dead, 1,500 structures destroyed
A raging firestorm born in the dark of night by dry, violent winds roared down from the rural hills bordering Napa and Sonoma counties early Monday and cut a devastating swath into Santa Rosa from its eastern outskirts, killing at least seven city residents and destroying more than 1,500 structures.
Tens of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes hours before sunrise, when the ruin wrought by flames in several terrifying hours became apparent over a rural and urban landscape spanning more than 50 square miles. In Sonoma County alone, officials said 100 people were reported missing.
For thousands of firefighters and residents trying to protect homes, the fire driven by gusts up to 68 mph was an amorphous, unstoppable force, rampaging through Mark West Springs, Larkfield and Wikiup, and Fountaingrove, where it claimed hundreds of upscale Santa Rosa houses tucked into forested hillsides.
From there it raced on, scorching landmark businesses and school campuses and threatening two hospitals, where hundreds of patients were evacuated. Throwing sparks ahead of its main front, the fire then jumped Highway 101 into a heavily populated corner of northwest Santa Rosa.
In Coffey Park, the destruction was warlike. Block after block, hundreds of homes burst into flames.
“The volume of structures and neighborhoods that have been completely destroyed is incredible,” said Assistant Santa Rosa Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal, who lost his own Larkfield home Monday. “There are areas where, as far as the eye can see, is complete devastation with entire neighborhoods burned to the ground.”
By nightfall Monday, the Tubbs fire, which began about 10 p.m. near Calistoga in eastern Napa County, was still uncontrolled on many fronts. Its single-day toll made it the worst natural disaster on record in Sonoma County, and among the most destructive wildfires in California history. Authorities said they expected the death toll to grow, and financial losses from the fire - from homes and luxury hotels, to school campuses and wineries - are likely to mount into the billions of dollars.
The blaze, which burned 27,000 acres by Monday night, was the most catastrophic of more than 14 wildfires across eight counties in Northern California. The heaviest activity centered in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, where up to 75,000 acres had burned. A total of 11 people were confirmed dead in the local fires, including two in Mendocino County and an elderly couple in Napa County.
In Sonoma Valley, several fires burned 5,000 acres around Glen Ellen and Kenwood, where homes on both sides of Highway 12 were destroyed.
“It has been a horrific and terrifying night for a great many people,” acting Santa Rosa Police Chief Craig Schwartz said Monday during a news conference. Low humidity and strong, inland winds that developed over the weekend helped fuel the firestorm. Cal Fire and the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning that extended through today, though gusts had largely died down by Monday evening.
By that time, the nightmare that many wildfire experts had long feared in Santa Rosa had played out. It was a haunting sequel to the disastrous Hanly fire of 1964, which originated in the same rugged terrain along the Napa-Sonoma border and ripped through what was then mostly rural land. It was halted before it reached the city’s core.
Not so this time.
Flames outpaced overmatched fire crews, burning through wooded, rural estates and onto paved city blocks. Desperate residents asked all day for updates on active fire fronts that seemed to have them surrounded. Fire officials pleaded for reinforcements.
“We’ve been wondering, ‘Where in the heck are they?’” Windsor Fire Chief Jack Piccinini said about 6 a.m. “I’ve asked, ‘Are units coming?’ and was told no, they’re going to the Atlas fire (in Napa County). That’s painful news to us. We’re still spread so thin.”
Highway 101 in Santa Rosa was completely shut down in both directions, from Steele Lane to Mark West Springs Road. Thick smoke kept badly needed Cal Fire tankers and helicopters grounded for much of the day. Commercial flights at Charles. M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport were canceled.
With hours to go before sunrise, the fire had topped a ridge west of Santa Rosa, lighting the hillside with flames before swooping down into town.
Ted Regan, who lives near Calistoga Road, said he saw the glow from the foothills behind his house about 2 a.m.
“It got brighter and brighter and then we saw flames. That’s when we said, ‘It’s time to go,’” Regan said.
Rachel McKenzie, who fled her home south of Hopper Avenue in northwest Santa Rosa with her son, her husband and a crate filled with pet reptiles, described the frenzied evacuation hours later as she awaited news of her home at an emergency evacuation center.