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How firefighters valiantly blocked Kincade fire from torching Windsor homes

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WINDSOR — Shortly after midnight Saturday, the orange glow of the Kincade fire over the Mayacamas Mountains became increasingly dim under a star-filled sky.

It seemed as if the roaring winds anticipated for days would not arrive. Then about 2 a.m. Sunday, the oaks and leafy vineyards in Alexander Valley began to sway violently.

Reinvigorated by howling winds, the wildfire that began Wednesday night on steep mountainous terrain provided an obscene light show on the ridgeline. And within minutes, the raging fire began making its way down to the valley’s world-famous vineyards — again.

At the base of the mountain’s western flanks, fire crews from Cal Fire, Sonoma County and all over the state, already in position, did what they could to protect valuable vineyard properties and accompanying structures.

They raced up and down Highway 128, turning onto vineyard access roads and private driveways off the road. But the strong winds fanned the flames across vineyards and dirt roads and the two-lane highway. Although a valiant firefighting effort, the wind-driven Kincade claimed Soda Rock Winery along the west side of Highway 128, reducing the historic buildings on the property to twisted metal and ashen rubble. Only the winery’s stone facade remained out of several structures.

The destruction occurred in the dark of night, with smoke so thick even the bright flames coming down the mountainside disappeared at times. By daybreak, the damage was vivid and unmistakable. The Mayacamas Mountains, from Pine Flat Road south beyond Chalk Hill Road, was like a giant smoky carcass. Homes along the upper end of Chalk Hill Road were reduced to a familiar October rubble to those in Sonoma County who lived through the 2017 North Bay firestorm.

Flames even reached across the Alexander Valley to ridges west of West Soda Rock Lane.

The much-feared early Sunday morning wind display of force essentially became the second chapter of the Kincade fire, a blaze that since Wednesday has scorched more than 54,000 acres and destroyed 94 structures. By Sunday evening, firefighters lost the minimal control they had on this inferno as containment slipped from 10% to 5%.

The biggest challenge came Sunday afternoon when the blaze pushed south, crossed Highway 128 and flames ran all the way to Windsor’s northeast flank.

Like warriors with their homeland at their backs and their final line of defense just ahead, firefighters took up positions between the Kincade fire and the towns of Healdsburg and Windsor.

By 1 p.m. strong winds ushered flames within a few hundred yards of Windsor homes near Foothill Regional Park.

Thick, brown smoke covered the skies over this town of nearly 28,000 residents, though many if not most had already fled because of a mandatory evacuation. In the early morning darkness, even as Kincade torched homes and vineyards along Highway 128, several fire engines and at least a half dozen bulldozers lined Arata Lane on the north end of Windsor. Their response was immediate when spot fires ignited golden grass up the hill from Highway 101.

“We were able to stop it here,” said Billy Doig, a captain with San Diego County’s Heartland Fire and Rescue, from the backyard of an unscathed home on Red Tail Road. The rural, hillside neighborhood is to the east of Highway 101 and between Arata Lane and Limerick Lane in Windsor.

As fire approached Foothill park, many of those bulldozers were repositioned to nearby Hembree Lane and Foothill Drive, where firefighters prepared to defend the neighborhoods.

The wooded recreation area is bordered by densely populated residential neighborhoods to the south and more subdivisions west of town.

As fire crews stood guard Sunday afternoon in a neighborhood near the park, resident Mike Costlow doused his and his neighbors’ homes with a borrowed fire hose.

“I have too much to lose,” he said before running with the yellow hose from one house to another on Wisteria Way at Peppertree Drive.

Pointing to his family’s home, he said, “My whole construction company is here.”

Costlow said a neighbor that’s a retired firefighter loaned him the professional grade fire hose. He connected it to a hydrant and watered down all of the roofs and fences and trees that he could reach.

“I’m a new business owner and have all my tools here,” he said, noting he got his family and pets out of the house. But, he said, “It’s impossible to move everything.”

Inside Foothill park, inmate fire crews in orange firefighting gear set backfires on the northern and southern flanks of a pond to catch flames that had entered the oasis.

By nightfall Sunday, a relative calm returned to most of Windsor, where firefighters couldn’t keep flames from devouring a barn but saved people’s homes. Still, the fire crews didn’t move on.

“It’s the erratic winds that are keeping us where we are,” said Doig, the San Diego fire captain.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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