Firefighters make further gains on Walbridge fire, downgrade Dry Creek evacuation to a warning
Firefighters made significant progress Saturday digging firebreaks in the rugged, densely forested terrain between Rio Nido and a southern flank of Walbridge fire, for the first time getting hose lines onto this stubborn finger of the blaze that has kept hundreds out of their homes in the Russian River enclave.
Getting ground crews with hoses on that front of the fire will be far more effective than water dropped from helicopters, advancing the firefight against the 55,353-acre wildfire, Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said. The fire, which has not grown in acreage since Thursday, was 48% contained as of Saturday night.
It takes a firefighter with a shovel to “get to the core of that burning material” and then use a hose to extinguish the flames, Nicholls said.
“They have direct hand-line into the fire’s edge from Sweetwater (Springs Road) back over to Mount Jackson Resort Road,” Nicholls said. “Up until today (Saturday) we weren’t connected up to there, but they’ve completed that critical piece.”
At least 118 homes and 93 other structures have been destroyed by the Walbridge fire, according to preliminary damage figures from Cal Fire, although the number is sure to rise as the assessment work continues, Nicholls said. Another seven homes and nine other structures were damaged, according to the initial report.
Firefighters have made significant progress since Thursday, holding the fire’s acreage steady and nearly doubling containment lines around the perimeter of the blaze burning in the rugged forests north of Guerneville and west of Healdsburg.
Saturday, residents along a portion of Dry Creek were allowed to return home after the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office downgraded an evacuation order to a warning, another sign the threat from the 12-day-old Walbridge fire continued to wane.
Officials advised these residents — those in evacuation Zone 2E2, an area west of Dry Creek between Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs and Chemise roads — may return “at your own risk” as the fire still continued to burn.
The change does not include residences on both roads, which remain under evacuation orders.
While firefighters have halted the expansion of the Walbridge fire, Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins cautioned that flames still burned within its perimeter, sending plumes of smoke visible from Russian River communities. She acknowledged the toll on residents still unable to return home.
“There still are active fingers of the fire in some of those canyons,” Hopkins said. “That’s why it’s so critical our firefighters have full access and they don’t have to worry about evacuating people.”
Hopkins spent the morning taking in the damage and signs of success in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve with representatives from State Parks and Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods.
She described an ashen forest floor on one side of the valley trail while the other side appeared unscathed.
“It really feels like an alternate reality,” Hopkins said.
But 2,234 Sonoma County residents remained under evacuation orders nearly two weeks into the firefight, a difficult, and for some, costly ordeal that is compounded by the pandemic and concerns about limiting contact with other people.
Longtime Rio Nido resident Mark Cook said the evacuation had really begun to wear on him and his wife, who had to leave a hotel and were staying in their car at a friend’s property. Cook said he was frustrated by a lack of information from the county, particularly an estimated timeline for when they might be able to return.
“That’s what it boils down to, uncertainty for us,” Cook said. “We don’t know when we’ll go home.”
The fire broke out Aug. 17 during a massive lightning storm that ignited wildland blazes across Northern California. The cluster of fires in five North Bay counties, dubbed the LNU Lightning Complex, includes the massive 316,207-acre Hennessey fire.
The Hennessey fire was 54% contained Saturday. Firefighters lit backfires Saturday to keep back a finger of the fire threatening to push closer to Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake in Lake County, Cal Fire spokesman Jay Tracy said. The fire continued to be active on the northern portion of Rumsey Canyon along Highway 16 in Yolo County.
“It’s still real steep and rugged in there. They are trying to do their best,” Tracy said.
More than 2,800 firefighters were battling the blazes Saturday in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties, and Cal Fire downgraded the number of homes threatened by the fires from more than 30,000 to 10,350 between Friday and Saturday nights. Since the fires started nearly two weeks ago, three people in Napa County and two in Solano County have been killed and four people injured.