Wildfire menaces northwestern Sonoma County, forcing thousands to evacuate
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.