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Inside the fight to save Windsor from the Kincade fire

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Flames were sweeping down the grassy slopes of Foothill Regional Park toward the near-empty town of Windsor when Sonoma County Fire District Battalion Chief Mike Elson drove up Cayetano Court and realized the moment they had all been bracing for had come.

Two-story flames and glowing firebrands whirled through the smoke-darkened skies, setting fences and trees ablaze, lighting landscaping and, soon, sparking fires at several homes in the neighborhood, as well.

The marauding Kincade fire had been bearing down on Windsor all morning, burning its way through a rural landscape across a wide area north of town, where an army of firefighting forces stood ready to face it late in the morning of Oct. 27.

But it would be northeast Windsor, in and around hundreds of homes in the Foothill Oaks Estates, where they confronted the biggest threat — a near-overwhelming battle to keep the blaze from taking the neighborhood and the town.

Scores of firefighters took part in the initial attack, making a stand amid the chaos, barely daring to hope they would prevent the fire from ripping through town, let alone sweeping across Highway 101 and burning a trail of destruction all the way to the coast.

“That fire coming off of Foothill Park, that fire was coming off that hill very quickly, and it was massive,” said Elson, who was leading a nine-engine task force but eventually took command of the Foothills campaign. “It was a massive firefight. There were flames up over the tops of houses ... and those are mostly two-story houses, so they were 30, 40 feet in the air.”

But in what became a pivotal juncture in the two-week effort to beat back Sonoma County’s largest wildfire ever, the battle for Windsor spared every single home in the town of 27,000 people and substantially curbed the fire’s spread.

Sonoma County fire officials credit 200 firefighters or more, both local and from outside the area, who jammed into the neighborhood and simply refused to give way to the flames.

They fought house-to-house, confronting the blaze so aggressively they pushed the boundaries of personal safety to the very limit — to the point Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine said he came close to ordering crews to fall back in a few cases.

“That was very dangerous firefighting in there,” Heine said. “To enter someone’s backyard, where everything in their backyard was on fire, meant they didn’t know if they could get themselves back out. There was just that spirit of, ‘We’re not letting this fire come to our town.’ ”

It came frighteningly close, making innumerable forays into the Foothills area, a neighborhood of several hundred homes tucked up against the hills of the regional park east of Arata and Hembree lanes in the northeast section of Windsor.

Particularly vulnerable were about 150 homes arrayed around cul-de-sacs, many of which had backyards exposed to the park or connected landscape, often separated from the parklands only by wire fencing.

But ferocious winds that sent sparks and flaming debris well ahead of the fire front that day meant anywhere in the neighborhood or even within a mile or two was at risk of blown embers and fire starts.

Were the fire to get established in even two or three homes, generating intense heat, large flames and embers, “We were likely to lose that whole neighborhood,” Heine and others said.

Residents who returned to the area days later found singed trees and burned gardens, lengths of fencing turned to charcoal, ash-covered ground where the flames had spread directly from the blackened hills of Foothill park into their backyards. There were scores of places — outdoor sofa cushions, patches of grass, Halloween decorations — that had caught fire and been put out.

Firefighters had to kick down doors in a few cases to douse attic fires after embers ignited rooftops or burned fencing up to exterior walls like they did at Michelle and Brad Stibi’s place on Valle Vista Court.

“We were the loop on national TV,” Michelle Stibi, 50, said, her expression suggesting she was none too impressed with the celebrity brought by widely shared footage of the firefight in her yard. “This is going to be a concrete jungle when Brad gets done with it.”

Fire officials say it would have been worse if it weren’t for the stucco and tile or concrete roof construction that dominates the Spanish-styled Foothill Oaks Estates subdivision that makes up most of the area between Hembree Lane and Vinecrest Road, where the firefight took place.

“Some of those embers were still getting up into those eaves,” Elson said, “but construction features that they built into those neighborhoods definitely helped.”

A far more critical factor was the early evacuation of residents, clearing the way for firefighters to battle flames and defend property without the need to commit time and attention to rescue efforts. Saving lives and getting people out had completely consumed public safety personnel during the early phase of the 2017 Tubbs fire, which swept across Sonoma County from Calistoga by night with such speed that hundreds were trapped in their homes and neighborhoods and forced to flee through the flames.

“If people had stayed in those homes in Foothill, they would have died,” Heine said starkly, “and if not, it would have created such a complex issue for us that we wouldn’t have been able to fight the fire. It allowed us to focus on the fire and not life-safety and rescue.”

The 77,758-acre Kincade fire, now 100% contained, started many miles north of Windsor, atop The Geysers, during extremely strong winds the night of Oct. 23. It had burned virtually unchecked for four days along a mostly southerly path before it rushed toward Windsor during a period of rapid, wind-driven growth around midday Oct. 27.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick had ordered all Windsor residents to leave home a day earlier in what would be a succession of evacuations that cleared out a huge swath of Sonoma County. More than a third of the county’s population was under mandatory evacuation order, from Geyserville and Alexander Valley down to north Santa Rosa, and west to Jenner and Bodega Bay.

Hurricane-force winds coming out of the northeast and fire forecast modeling had contributed to the same terrifying prediction: that an unstoppable firestorm could burn through Windsor and jump the freeway into the thickly forested Russian River Valley, where flames fed by dense fuels unburned for decades would run all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Public safety officials alerted the public to this “worst-case scenario” when evacuation orders were issued.

But it’s not clear how many civilians appreciated the very real possibility of it coming to pass.

Most Californians are certainly aware of the increasing intensity of and destruction wrought by recent wildfires, experienced close to home in October 2017, when a series of fires rampaged through the region, killing 24  people in Sonoma County and destroying more than 5,300 homes.

But even Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli, during a celebration of the town’s endurance last weekend, felt compelled to ensure his constituents understood the gravity of what they had faced a week earlier.

Foppoli, 37, said top fire brass briefed him and other town officials a short time before Essick ordered Windsor and Healdsburg to evacuate the morning of Oct. 26 and told them at least part of their community would likely be lost to fire before the flames continued westward.

“This was not an ‘if,’ but it was a ‘when,’ ” Foppoli told an estimated 4,500 who gathered in the town square to salute firefighters.

But there was positive side, too, Sonoma County Fire District Battalion Chief Marshal Cyndi Foreman said.

All the mapping, modeling and intelligence put Windsor squarely in the bull’s-eye of the wildfire, Foreman said, so “we knew that we were not going to dodge this one, but we also knew it was coming.”

While the Tubbs fire and last year’s deadly Camp fire in Paradise continue to inform firefighters’ expectations in an age of extreme fire behavior, the siege on Windsor came with the luxury of time to plan ahead.

“I’ll take a disaster that we know is coming all day long, rather than something that’s going to wake me up out of a dead sleep that I don’t know is coming,” Foreman said.

The Kincade fire was fought under the unified command of Cal Fire, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department, the Sonoma County Fire District and several other agencies.

But the planning for Windsor was turned over largely to the Sonoma County Fire District and to Battalion Chief Mark Dunn, with the aid of Heine and other top officials, and support from many others, including fire personnel from other agencies who happen to live in northeast Windsor and offered to help.

Nothing less than the fate of the town hung in the balance, and many thought that even if the town were saved, hundreds of homes would be lost first.

Dunn, for instance, thought substantial residential losses were inevitable if the fire got established at Foothill Regional Park, as it did.

“When people have talked to me, I’ve been so emotional about it,” Dunn said. “It’s one thing to have a plan and to ask strike team leaders and strike teams and my own department, ‘I need you to do this; you’re going to go to this neighborhood and try to hold your ground.’

“That’s one thing. But they actually did it, and they did it perfectly. So many individual engines from different agencies doing all that,” he said. “It was amazing.”

The firefighting force had to be ready to meet the blaze coming in from the north or the east — or both, which is how it transpired — and be prepared to hold Highway 101, whatever it might take, Dunn said.

They had to figure out where they might lose control of the fire and identify contingency plans that included lines which, once crossed, would trigger crews to fall back several blocks to preset points. There was even the potential for the fire to take successive neighborhoods, forcing the entire firefighting force to seek refuge across the freeway if it got bad enough.

Dozens of engines were moved into the area by Saturday night, Oct. 26, some staged at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa. Three strike teams of five engines were prepositioned in Windsor, a number of them redeployed directly from the 4,615-acre Tick fire that was winding down in Southern California.

Sonoma County Fire District personnel and a fleet of bulldozers also were deployed around Windsor, many of them around Arata Lane and Highway 101/Los Amigos Road, near the command post.

As restless fire officials patrolled rural areas north of town late Sunday morning, around 11 a.m., the fire made a drive for Windsor, sweeping off the hills from Chalk Hill Road in several directions once, fire officials said. One head of the fire was veering past Hillview Road toward Limerick Lane and the highway, while another came down Hillview south toward Brooks Road and Arata Lane, and a third came down Chalk Hill Road toward the area of Vinecrest Road, though eventually the biggest threat came from edges of wildfire that merged in Foothill Park and spread swiftly through the grasses of the 211-acre open space.

Roberto Pardo, 54, and his family, meanwhile, were safely ensconced in a Napa hotel, anxiously monitoring news of the Kincade fire as they had through the night, when security cameras from his Windsor home began sending snippets of grainy footage to his cellphone.

Just before noon, he saw two fire engines pull into Miramar Court near the west side of Foothill park and observed firefighters go into his neighbors’ backyards and his own — ensuring they had access in the event it was necessary, was Pardo’s guess. He could see the wind whipping so fiercely it bent one of his palm trees nearly in half.

Then the six firefighters, apparently satisfied, lined up side by side in the road facing east and waited — watching, bracing, for the coming siege.

When he saw a law enforcement vehicle take a last, hasty spin around the court before speeding away — as if checking to make sure everybody was gone — he knew “that the fire was here,” Pardo said.

Firefighters were frantically canvassing neighborhoods, moving propane tanks, lawn furniture, umbrellas and whatever flammable items they found away from homes, or kicking down fences to improve access or avoid creating fuses that might help ignite homes.

Sonoma County Fire District Capt. Mike Stornetta, whose own home is mere blocks away, had by then gone looking for the fire, dragging a fire hose into Foothill park with Capt. Fred Leuenberger and confronting it there amid the oak trees. They sounded the alarm in the moments before flames hit Cayetano Court and made entry into the neighborhood behind a number of homes at once.

His report marked the beginning of an epic battle, marked by what Dunn said was suddenly one report after another of the fire’s arrival in neighboring cul-de-sacs and the response of dozens of fire crews into the area.

Foreman said, “It was like somebody blew the bugle and the cavalry arrived. You couldn’t run 10 or 20 feet without running into another firefighter. There were so many resources that saturated that community.”

Even so, it was daunting.

Elson said he thought for a second about the personal vehicle he had left at the Hembree Lane fire station more than a mile to the south and whether he would have time to move it before the fire got there.

“My gut reaction was that we were going to lose that whole neighborhood,” he said.

Foreman remembers a point when the fire came down to Vinecrest Road toward the east edge of town when the whole sky went dark — “like somebody turned the lights off” — perhaps as the fire took three homes up a steep, narrow tail of Vinecrest, just outside the town limits.

In the Foothills neighborhood, the firefight lasted an hour, perhaps 90 minutes, a relentless attack in which each strike team and engine leader was authorized to exercise his or her own discretion as to what was needed to advance the cause.

Many neighborhood residents saw the battle unfold on TV or social media, including a widely watched video shared in real-time where they watched firefighters in their own yards and saw their properties in flames.

“We created a whole text group before we evacuated on Saturday, and we all talked to each other the whole time,” said Beverly Madden, who retired to a home at the end of Valle Vista Court a few years ago and was alarmed by the video someone passed her way.

She now has ash across part of her backyard and new landscaping, now probably ruined. But “when we saw the video, compared to when we got here? We feel super, super great.”

The fire came within yards of Mike Hoesly’s home up a long drive way atop a hill at the north end of Cayetano Court, after “toasting” about two-thirds his vineyard and burning through a good deal of landscaping at the edge of his backyard just off Three Lakes Trail in the regional park.

But he’s grateful that firefighters saved his heritage oak — the only thing growing on the property, when he and his wife, Kate, moved there in 1990.

“This could have been so tragic, you know?” said Hoesly, 70. “We just feel kind of like if the home construction had been different, it could have been a domino effect.”

There would be more firefighting to do later that day and in the days to come, as the wildfire swept up toward Shiloh Ridge and the Mark West Creek watershed.

But for Elson and others from the district who fought the 2017 Tubbs fire and struggled fruitlessly to try to protect homes they instead watched burn, defending Windsor proved a watershed — a badly needed save, a source of redemption, he said.

“You know,” said Stornetta, “‘with the winds that we were having and, with the experiences that we’ve had in this area and all over California, I was really not holding out a ton of hope that we were going to be able to save it. However, the mentality that everyone had was, ‘Hey, we’re not letting this happen again.’ ”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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