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Wildfire menaces northwestern Sonoma County, forcing thousands to evacuate

The LNU Lightning Complex

Cal Fire has dubbed five fires in Napa County and two in Sonoma County as the LNU Lightning Complex, a nod to their likely origins during a rare summer lightning storm that swept through the region on Sunday and Monday.

Here’s where each stood at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday:

SONOMA COUNTY

13-4 fire: 500 acres west of Healdsburg. 0% contained.

11-16 fire: 25 acres north of Jenner. 0% contained.

NAPA COUNTY

Hennessey fire: 10,000 acres near Hennessey Ridge Road. 1 structure, two outbuildings destroyed. 0% contained.

Gamble fire: 10,000 acres near Berryessa Knoxville Road west of Brooks. 0% contained.

15-10 fire: 8,000 acres near Putah Creek Bridge and Berryessa Knoxville Road. 0% contained.

Spanish fire: 1,000 acres near Spanish Flat. 0% contained.

Markley fire: 2,500 acres near Monticello Dam. 0% contained.

Source: Cal Fire

Thousands of residents in a rugged, mountainous swath of northwestern Sonoma County were ordered to flee their homes Tuesday after a lightning-sparked wildfire broke out amid dry and remote forestland, triggering evacuations amid a punishing multiday heat spell that stretched along the lower Russian River from Forestville to the Sonoma Coast and north.

The wildfire, last reported at up to 500 acres, was burning in the hills north of Guerneville, where a steady stream of traffic headed east on River Road late Tuesday after authorities expanded evacuation orders. By the end of the day, that area spanned from west of Dry Creek Road outside of Healdsburg to the coast at Fort Ross, and north of the river to Stewarts Skaggs Springs Road, more than 40 miles away.

The 13-4 fire was the larger of two fires burning in the area, both of which blanketed much of central Sonoma County late Tuesday in an ominous layer of smoke, with gray ash raining down miles from the fire front. The second fire, called the 11-16 ‒ also named after the battalion that reported it and when it was found ‒ burned north of Jenner, between Meyers Grade Road and the coast, prompting evacuations there, as well. That fire had reached an estimated 25 acres by Tuesday evening and, like the 13-4, was wholly uncontained.

Together, they resulted in the first mandatory evacuations for Sonoma County of the 2020 fire season, but only 10 months removed from last year’s massive Kincade fire, which forced 200,000 to flee, including many of the same communities stretching all the way to the coast.

Five wildfires also burned Tuesday in Napa County, three of them major blazes, collectively consuming more than 30,000 acres there, as wildfires forced evacuation orders in five of nine Bay Area counties, plus Mendocino County, on Tuesday.

But it was the 13-4 fire on which most Sonoma County residents were focused, as it prompted a succession of evacuation orders throughout the afternoon and evening that drew increasing alarm from wildfire-weary locals.

That one, Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said, “has the potential to become a major fire.”

“It just blew up this afternoon,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins as she drove late Tuesday down River Road toward her home in Forestville, just outside the evacuation zone. “The wind picked up. There are some gusts that are really driving this fire. You see the smoke, but then suddenly there was a massive fire.”

Much of the area hasn’t burned in decades, including an area of 11,000 acres north of Cazadero that was part of the 1978 Creighton Ridge fire, which after more than 40 years strikes fear in the hearts of people how know what kind of fuel resides there now.

“This is what we’ve been worried about, all the dried fuels out here and the forests not being managed well,” said Scott Farmer, a Timber Cove resident and chairman of the local advisory council.

Sonoma County’s two fires were burning primarily in heavy timber, touched off this week by lightning strikes that came with enough rain to ease tensions over this year’s prolonged dry spell, but not enough to keep them from breaking out.

“When we had those lightning cells coming through, those were isolated rain pockets, and some of those never even hit where the fires were at, and also those drive the winds that driver some of those fires up into the canyons that are so inaccessible – areas where you can’t get crews,” Cal Fire spokesman Will Powers said.

When the humidity dropped on Tuesday, and then the afternoon heat came up, fires that had been growing steadily suddenly exploded, growing exponentially, sending great plumes of smoke into the sky and, in the case of 13-4, broadcasting ash as far away as Bennett Valley, Hopkins said.

The fierce winds that drove the 2017 firestorm and the Kincade fire last year haven't accompanied the latest blazes, noted Supervisor James Gore. But a shift in the pattern Wednesday, from southerly gusts to more westerly winds, could still wreak havoc, he said.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re so well-versed in this,” he added, noting that every firefighter, every emergency official, law enforcement officer and evacuee he saw on Tuesday was saying, “Here we go again.”

“But they were ready,” Gore said, “so if there’s anything I can put my faith in, it’s that we’re a battle-hardened bunch.”

At one point Tuesday, Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynette Round said there had been 5,992 lightning strikes reported in the previous 24 hours and 155 fires within Cal Fire’s jurisdiction in Northern California.

“Throughout the day, new smokes have been popping up,” said Powers, the Cal Fire spokesman.

The LNU Lightning Complex

Cal Fire has dubbed five fires in Napa County and two in Sonoma County as the LNU Lightning Complex, a nod to their likely origins during a rare summer lightning storm that swept through the region on Sunday and Monday.

Here’s where each stood at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday:

SONOMA COUNTY

13-4 fire: 500 acres west of Healdsburg. 0% contained.

11-16 fire: 25 acres north of Jenner. 0% contained.

NAPA COUNTY

Hennessey fire: 10,000 acres near Hennessey Ridge Road. 1 structure, two outbuildings destroyed. 0% contained.

Gamble fire: 10,000 acres near Berryessa Knoxville Road west of Brooks. 0% contained.

15-10 fire: 8,000 acres near Putah Creek Bridge and Berryessa Knoxville Road. 0% contained.

Spanish fire: 1,000 acres near Spanish Flat. 0% contained.

Markley fire: 2,500 acres near Monticello Dam. 0% contained.

Source: Cal Fire

While most of the wildfire activity was in remote areas, evacuation orders came increasingly close to population centers Tuesday, finally arriving around 7 p.m. on the north shore of the Russian River, along a stretch of river corridor that has endured flooding, fires and pandemic restrictions in the past 18 months.

The same area was evacuated as a precaution last fall during the historic Kincade fire because of concerns about dry, dense fuels in the area.

The newest disaster triggered a mass exodus that predictably turned eastbound traffic on River Road into a slog, backing up traffic to the Russian River Pub several miles east of Guerneville, by 8:25 p.m.said Jeniffer Wertz, a decade-long resident of Guerneville and volunteer with the Russian River Alliance.

She was at the grocery store when she got an alert to evacuate the area Tuesday afternoon and rushed home. She alerted her neighbors to leave the area before driving away.

“I wish we could go back to just one major crisis at a time, but we’re getting really good at disasters, unfortunately,” Wertz said. “People pay attention now when they say leave.”

Traffic slowed at the Hacienda Bridge as CHP officers blocked the westbound lanes and checked to see if people lived in the area before allowing them through, Wertz said. A few law enforcement vehicles sped past her going west, lights and sirens blaring, she added.

Outside Pat’s International restaurant, his business on Guerneville’s Main Street,

David Blomster, sipped a glass of dry rosé as a parade of cars, trucks and campers passed by. Theo, his dog, paced slowly by his ankles as Blomster explained why he wasn’t worried by evacuations or the plumes of smoke.

“I’ve been through many things here: fire, floods, more fire,” said Blomster, whose home was outside the evacuation area Tuesday. His business, though, was in the affeced area. “Typically, I don’t leave my business.”

But as he watched the cars go by with barely a hint of plans to leave, he acknowledged that could change.

“If the winds started shifting more,” he said, “then I’d be — cautious.”

On nearby Mill Street, Rob Holmes stood outside his home as a friend watered bushes and trees. Holmes noted that he and his neighbors had plenty of experience living with disaster, from the Kincade fire to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which will complicate any large-scale efforts to move people from potential danger to safety.

“People aren’t scared anymore,” Holmes said. “I’m not scared anymore.”

That said, he was still on the fence about leaving.

“Our plan’s always been to drive where the fire’s not,” he said. “As long as there’s no traffic, we’re cool.”

Earlier in the day, relatives helped Ray Turner and his wife evacuate five mini horses off their 40-acre ranch off Palmer Creek Road near the Austin Creek State Recreation Area. Turner said they were following orders from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to leave.

The pair had their belongings packed and were about ready to shove off, though Turner intended to return Tuesday night to patrol the 40-acre property to guard against spot fires.

“If any ashes come here, I’m getting on my motorcycle and trying to put it out,” Turner said.

The large plume of smoke that Helena Hambrecht saw from the porch of her backyard was enough for her to evacuate to a San Francisco hotel with her 2-year-old daughter Tuesday afternoon, just a few hours before the Sheriff's Office would expand the evacuation zone to include the 68-acre ranch northwest of Healdsburg where she lives.

A two-mile-long, one way road is the only evacuation route from her home, making any last-minute evacuations too much to risk, she added.

Hambrecht’s husband was staying behind to guard their home, clearing brush away from the house, she said. She hoped the vineyards surrounding their property might serve as a firebreak if the fire decided to creep their way.

“This is the closest that a fire has ever been to us before,” Hambrecht said. “You can take all the precautions and get out of the way but ultimately it’s a waiting game.”

Among those in the first raft of evacuations, Mill Creek Road resident Mark Menne worked first to make sure neighbors had received the emergency notifications warning them to prepare to leave home.

He and a neighbor, Scott Farmer, had formed a neighborhood emergency group – Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies – after the 2017 firestorm to improve preparedness and resiliency, so he had a checklist of things to take, as well, so everything was staged when the order to evacuate came.

“The irony of the whole thing is we had really nice rain over the weekend,” said Menne, 59. “I thought, ‘This is going to push back fire season. This is going to give us a break.’ All of a sudden, boom.”

Staff Writer Lori A. Carter contributed reporting.

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