Sawmill fire in The Geysers now 45 percent contained

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Firefighters halted the spread of a wildfire in the The Geysers on Monday, enabling air tankers to be released from battling the 1,500-acre blaze in a rugged area of northeast Sonoma County known for raging fires.

The Sawmill fire, which erupted Sunday morning and was initially driven by gusting winds over drought-stricken hills, “had the potential to be a lot more destructive than it was,” said David Cornelssen, a Windsor Fire Department battalion chief who led a strike team on the fire Sunday night.

“It’s looking really good,” said Scott McLean, a Cal Fire spokesman who was headed home on Monday.

Air tankers played a major role in fighting the fire Sunday, but were released Monday morning after ground crews strengthened fire containment lines overnight, Cornelssen said.

The wind died down late Sunday and did not pick up overnight or on Monday, officials said.

There were no advancing flames Monday as a small army of 1,033 firefighters concentrated on extending fire lines and dousing hot spots within the fire’s footprint, McLean said. Containment more than doubled from 20 percent Monday morning to 45 percent at 6 p.m., while the fire’s size had not grown since Sunday night.

Monday’s temperature hit 91 degrees, and work on the steep slopes was tough, McLean noted. “Still a hard day for firefighters,” he said.

Four helicopters continued the aerial campaign, dropping water on specific targets, he said.

All mandatory evacuation orders and road closures were lifted at 6 p.m. Monday, Cal Fire said. Two firefighters sustained minor injuries, but no details were available, said Suzie Blankenship, a Cal Fire spokeswoman.

Fire and Sonoma County sheriff’s personnel had evacuated about 36 residences along Geysers, Pocket Ranch and Monkey Rock roads, although some were vacation homes and hunting cabins. Officials said Monday night no structures had been destroyed.

An evacuation center established at a Lutheran church in Healdsburg was closed after no one used it, Cal Fire Division Chief Mike Wilson said.

The Geysers area, spreading 45 square miles in the Mayacamas Mountains along the Sonoma-Lake County border, is the largest complex of geothermal power plants in the world, according to Calpine, the company that operates 14 plants that generate electricity from steam piped out of the ground.

Calpine evacuated workers on Sunday from its Aidlin plant on Coldwater Creek Road at the west edge of the Geysers, but sent them back in Monday, said Brett Kerr, a Calpine spokesman.

The plant was offline at the time of the evacuation so no power production was lost, he said.

The Geysers meets the typical power needs of Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties, as well a portion of the power needs of Marin and Napa counties, Calpine says.

The area is also a perennial wildfire threat.

Cornelssen recalled the last major blaze — the McCabe fire— scorched 3,505 acres in November 2013, boosted by dry fuel and gusting winds.

A blaze named the Geysers fire covered 12,525 acres in Lake County in September 2004 and cost $12.5 million to fight.

Wind tends to blow hard over the remote ridgetops, and roads in The Geysers are steep and difficult to traverse in some areas, Cornelssen said. “Fire trucks don’t go fast up hills,” he noted.

For all of their success Monday, officials cautioned the fire has not been extinguished and crews remain wary of flames breaking out beyond the containment lines.

“Anything could change, but we’re moving in the right direction,” Blankenship said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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