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Firefighters try to keep Kincade fire from reaching Healdsburg and Windsor; 190,000 evacuated in Sonoma County

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Thousands of firefighters on Sunday held back a raging wildfire fueled by fierce and erratic winds from making a wholesale incursion into densely populated neighborhoods of Windsor and Healdsburg, then dug in to do it all over again as the fire flared overnight.

The Kincade fire destroyed more homes Sunday, but the toll of destruction as of late Sunday — 94 structures lost — was not the horror imagined when authorities ordered everyone in Geyserville, Healdsburg and Windsor and all the way to the Sonoma Coast to evacuate in advance of the windstorm, a historic displacement of an estimated 190,000 people.

But there was no break yet for legions of firefighters brought to Sonoma County from across California and beyond, nor was there any sense of when people might be allowed to return home.

“The thing that people need to know is that the threat is real,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, who spent 24 hours with the firefighters in the Alexander Valley. “That doesn’t invoke fear; it invokes vigilance.”

The Kincade fire still burned ferociously after nightfall Sunday across about 54,300 acres, continuing to menace hillside communities on the eastern outskirts of Windsor and making a run toward north Santa Rosa neighborhoods still recovering from the devastating 2017 fires. Containment of the blaze dropped from 11% to 5% on Sunday.

Two firefighters suffered burns, minor in one case and critical enough to send the other man to the UC Davis Medical Center.

The fire and a planned power shut-off in advance of the windstorm combined to create mass disruption of life in Sonoma County.

All 40 Sonoma County public school districts canceled classes for nearly 70,000 students Monday and Tuesday. Two major hospitals in Santa Rosa, Sutter and Kaiser medical centers, have transferred patients elsewhere.

PG&E turned off power to 93,000 customers in Sonoma County, leaving about 300,000 people in the dark. Another shut-off could come as early as Tuesday, meaning some people could be without power for a week.

Flights were canceled in and out of the Charles M. Schulz- Sonoma County Airport. Businesses across the county closed and told workers to stay home.

Gov. Gavin Newsom returned to Sonoma County on Sunday to tour emergency shelters in Petaluma, his second visit to the area after the Kincade fire ignited late Wednesday night in the Geysers geothermal area of the Mayacamas Mountains east of Geyserville.

“I’m sorry you are going through this,” he told Pathena Byerley, who had arrived just after midnight from Guerneville on Sunday morning. “It’s not easy.”

“No, it’s not,” Byerley said.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick acknowledged the evacuations were far more than an inconvenience. But he remained steadfast in his confidence they made the right choice to get people out.

“We want to get people back to their homes as quickly as possible — there’s a lot of anxiety and fear out there,” Essick said.

On Sunday, Essick visited evacuation shelters to talk with the displaced and also took a helicopter flight to survey the fire from the air. As the helicopter circled back to the airport, Essick watched an air tanker dropping its load just east of Fitch Mountain — where a major firefight was taking place to keep the blaze out of Healdsburg — its last mission for the day before returning to Sacramento. Looking down at the flames encroaching on Windsor, Essick shook his head. “I know they can’t,” he said of the tankers, “but I wish they could just keep hitting this fire all night.”

Before dawn Sunday, one mighty gust reached 93 mph in the hills northeast of Healdsburg.

The wind drove the Kincade fire from its southern flank in the Mayacamas Mountains back down into the Alexander Valley where firefighters had beaten it back just three days ago.

Eric LaFranchi and his son Logan had stayed on the family’s cattle ranch in Knights Valley and had been keeping watch on the fire burning deep in the hills north of their land. The fire had seemed so distant, and they knew the ridges it would have to cross from Pine Flat Road. But suddenly, during the windy predawn hours, fire was all around.

They headed toward Calistoga but were thwarted by a fallen tree. So they turned back and drove into the inferno on both sides of Highway 128, a frightening drive with LaFranchi watching the taillights of his son’s truck ahead.

“We almost didn’t get out,” he said.

The fire burned across the family’s ranch, destroying two mobile homes and three houses, including the one where LaFranchi grew up and where he then raised his own children.

Miraculously, the herd of about 600 cattle survived, and LaFranchi credited the animals’ resourcefulness.

“Sadness — that’s the emotion I’m feeling,” said LaFranchi. “Not shock because I knew something like this was possible.”

For hours, the wind hardly ceased battering the region Sunday. Sustained speeds hit 40 mph with gusts regularly at 60 and 80 mph.

The Kincade fire destroyed buildings at Soda Rock Winery and homes on Chalk Hill Road.

But there were saves, too.

Hundreds of firefighters fought an aggressive battle at the edge of Foothill Regional Park and turned the fire back away from a dense Windsor neighborhood.

As the firefighters battled back those flames and lit defensive backfires, many waited for news of that particular firefight. They feared what losing the Foothill neighborhood could mean — a terrifying fiery run across Highway 101 toward the densely wooded west county.

But that scenario did not come to be Sunday.

Windsor resident Stephanie Larson and her husband Roger Praplin, who owns La Gare restaurant in Santa Rosa, were among those watching breathlessly for news of their neighborhood, just west across the highway from that firefight.

Larson said she started crying when she heard they held the fire back.

“I just thought, wow, they don’t know me and they’re making a stand to save my house,” Larson said. “I’m still emotional about it. And thankful.”

The main hope for Monday was that the winds would die down and give firefighters a chance to gain significant ground against the Kincade fire’s most aggressive flanks.

Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls wouldn’t even entertain the idea that the firefight would be easier with reduced wind speeds, saying, “I’m not going down that road.”

“No wind is preferable,” Nicholls said, laughing. “The greater the wind speed, the more difficult the control is, and the more likelihood for spot fires.”

Nicholls was above Shiloh Estates, next to Shiloh Regional Park, about 9 p.m. Sunday. The area north of Larkfield lost hundreds of homes in the Tubbs fire two years ago, and Nicholls sees similarities.

The wind, at times, has even surpassed what firefighters dealt with during the deadly blaze that killed 22 people and destroyed 5,300 homes, becoming for a month the most destructive in California history.

Nicholls can see now that it could have been worse. The wind didn’t blow for nearly as long as it has this year.

“That was the saving grace in ’17,” he said. “It was that one night. The duration of this offshore wind event is what’s made this one unique and difficult.”

Sunday night, the Kincade fire made a run to the south toward Shiloh Estates on Windsor’s eastern outskirts and posed a direct threat south into Larkfield and Wikiup in north Santa Rosa.

Sonoma County Fire Battalion Chief and Fire Marshal Cyndi Foreman said several crews and at least five bulldozers had surrounded Shiloh Regional Park and aimed to stop the flames from burning into the forest there, where it might gain additional power.

No amount of wind is good when battling a wildfire, and even the lesser winds Sunday night continued to propel embers ahead of the fire line.

Across the 84 square miles of the Kincade fire, crews were rotating back into the fire line, exhausted and determined, Foreman said.

“It’s pretty amazing what adrenaline will do when you’re exhausted,” Foreman said. “All of us are hellbent on trying to prevent this from becoming the disaster that was the Tubbs fire.”

Staff Writers Tyler Silvy, Nashelly Chavez, Guy Kovner, Randi Rossmann and Austin Murphy contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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