Sonoma County firefighters, engines prepare for fire risk, power outages

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No fires burned Tuesday, but with dry, windy conditions forecast for the next two days, Sonoma County fire officials spent the anniversary of the 2017 firestorm calling in an extraordinary amount of outside resources.

“The latest forecast is mirroring our 2017 winds, if not worse. We’re doing everything possible to over‑staff and provide safety measures. To do anything possible we can to get ahead,” said Sonoma Valley fire Battalion Chief Spencer Andreis, who Tuesday coordinated the unprecedented in-county staffing effort.

In all, more than three dozen extra engines and water tenders and some added 120 firefighters will swell already full staffing by paid and volunteer firefighters at most of the county’s three dozen fire agencies.

“We want ample people on duty, way ahead of the wind event,” Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine said.

The forecast called for extremely low humidity and winds gusting at the region’s highest peaks to around 70 mph. An announcement from the weather service said the dry, northerly winds could be the strongest to hit the region since 2017.

PG&E on Tuesday announced a massive power shut-off set to begin early Wednesday, possibly to last for days, for as many as 800,000 customers in Northern and Central California. The company is hoping not to spark fires when the winds kick up and power lines break or get hit by trees and branches, which is what started the majority of 2017’s major fires.

Since those fires, several changes enacted in fire response included the Board of Supervisors paying for a strike team with five engines to be on duty during fire‑prone weather.

Tuesday, 20 engines were added by officials fearful of a replay of 2017, when several fires broke out at once and overwhelmed local efforts.

The 20 engines plus three water tenders were divided into four strike teams, starting duty at 8 p.m. Tuesday, well in front of the worst of the winds. Each strike team costs about $25,000 for a 24-hour period, with the cost being split between Sonoma County and the state. They’ll work at least until Thursday afternoon, depending on how the winds blow.

That wasn’t all for the beefed‑up staffing in Sonoma County.

Cal Fire brought in firefighters and equipment from out of the county, and several local agencies added firefighters and engines to bolster staff at their own stations, including Santa Rosa, Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley fire.

Volunteer firefighters also were part of the effort, some helping on strike teams and others available at home stations.

“This is a good example of the importance of volunteers and our ability to provide a surge of people and equipment,” said Gold Ridge Fire Chief Shep Schroth‑Cary, who oversees volunteer companies countywide.

Vulnerable areas will see additional firefighters, including the hilly Mark West Springs corridor connecting Santa Rosa to Calistoga, and rural Knights Valley, also abutting Napa County. While all neighboring counties were adding firefighters and equipment, Andreis didn’t believe any were adding as many as Sonoma County.

“We have a large geographical boundary of a county. And what we lived through in 2017, we want to be prepared as possible,” said the veteran battalion chief.

Cal Fire’s Marshall Turbeville said the advance planning and staffing changes are an improvement over two years ago. “We’re more ready,” said the veteran battalion chief.

“I think the biggest thing is the increased awareness by the residents, regarding red flag warnings and watches and being prepared,” Turbeville said.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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