North Bay residents were startled Saturday afternoon as a large, new wildland blaze erupted in Yolo County and a week-old fire flared up in Lake County, pouring smoke across the North Bay.
Calls streamed into local fire stations and the Sonoma County emergency dispatch center from people worried that plumes visible from Santa Rosa to Sacramento marked a repeat of the devastating firestorms in October, the worst in California history.
The dispatch center summoned extra staff members as calls came in so rapidly “they couldn’t put the phone down without a couple more coming in,” a dispatcher said.
The call volume tailed off a bit after the Santa Rosa Police Department, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Windsor and Rincon Valley Fire Districts issued Nixle notices from about 6 to 7 p.m. saying there was no threat to Sonoma County.
Mark Basque, a Santa Rosa fire battalion chief, said the reaction was understandable given last year’s horror — flames roaring into Sonoma County in the middle of the night, killing 24 people and destroying nearly 5,300 homes, most in the span of 12 hours.
“All of a sudden you have a massive column of smoke in the east,” Basque said. “It looks a lot closer than it is.”
The National Weather Service posted a satellite imagery that showed smoke from the two fires drifting south over Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties as well as parts of the East Bay.
The new fire in Yolo County erupted just after 2 p.m. Saturday in the grasslands of Capay Valley south of the small town of Guinda on Highway 16 at County Road 63. It moved quickly into the hills of western Yolo County.
The wind-driven County fire, initially called the Guinda fire, started at a few hundred acres and by Saturday night had scorched 8,000 acres and was completely uncontained, Cal Fire said.
Roy Skinner, a Cal Fire spokesman, attributed the fire’s speed to “red flag conditions” — high heat, strong winds and low humidity.
The blaze, which created its own strong updraft, threw embers southward as far as a mile, he said.
At the Cache Creek Casino on Highway 16 about 9 p.m., Skinner said he could see a “spectacular line of fire” in the hills to the west.
Winds eased considerably in the valley at night, but the aerial attack on the fire was grounded.
“We’re at the mercy of the weather at this point,” Skinner said.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said a red flag warning had been extended until 3 p.m. today for elevations above 1,000 feet in Napa County and far eastern Sonoma County. The warning means critical fire weather conditions are either present or will occur shortly.
Thirty structures were threatened within the County fire evacuation zone from County Road 63 to County Road 76, west of Highway 16, plus the Murphy Ranch area. The area has scattered cattle ranches and olive groves, Skinner said.
An evacuation center was set up at Guinda Grange Hall.
Cal Fire said 41 engines, eight water tenders, 11 helicopters, nine air tankers, 17 bulldozers and 10 hand crews were battling the blaze.