Growing fire threat puts Sonoma County’s wooded towns on high alert

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‘Every square inch of California can burn’

California’s recent fire history

The 2017 and 2018 fire seasons were the most destructive in state history, with more than 16,500 wildfires scorching more than 2.8 million acres, including the catastrophic Camp fire that virtually erased the Butte County town of Paradise, killing 85 people and destroying more than 18,800 structures.

The Tubbs fire in 2017 sped from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in just over four hours, propelled by 60 to 70 mph winds. Stopping it was impossible, as firefighters and other first responders spent the night saving lives rather than fighting the blaze, Turbeville said. It followed the same course as the Hanly fire of 1964, which was stopped at the edge of a what was then a much smaller city.

Factors fueling wildfire

Vegetation

The southern third of Sonoma County consists of grasslands and oak woodlands; highly flammable nob cone pine and chaparral landscapes are to the east, along the Napa and Lake County lines in a very high fire hazard area; and mixed redwood and fir forests are found across the county, heavily along the coast and lower Russian River area, according to a Sonoma County Hazard Mitigation Plan Update in 2017.

Topography

Fire moves uphill faster as the flames preheat fuels in its path, while downhill slopes tend slow the flames. The hills of the Coastal Range rise abruptly from the coastline to more than 2,000 feet, and the Mayacamas Mountains on the county’s eastern edge rise from sea level valleys to up to 4,500 feet on the slopes of Mount St. Helena.

Steep terrain, including canyons, gulches and drainages, can act as chimneys, funneling hot air, gases and embers ahead or outside of the main fire. Mark West Canyon helped propel the Tubbs fire in 2017, which killed 22 people and destroyed 4,651 homes, most of them inside the city of Santa Rosa.

Weather

Long, arid summers guarantee that fuels will be dry by fall, when Diablo winds from the east pick up, creating the tinderbox conditions California has experienced in recent years, with climate change now seen by experts as a major contributing factor.

If statewide average temperatures rise 5.5 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit, the risk of large wildland fires is expected to increase about 20 percent by 2050 and 50 percent by the end of the century, the county’s hazard plan notes.

Standing on the south slope of Healdsburg’s Fitch Mountain, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville surveyed a distressing scene.

Above him, a towering fir tree was close enough to fall across two roads, blocking access and bringing down power lines that could remain live and dangerous on the ground. To one side, the roof and gutters of a residential structure were full of leaves ready to ignite from a windblown wildfire ember in dry weather.

On the way up Spring Street, Turbeville’s four-wheel drive pickup had met a descending UPS truck, forcing him to pull off the substandard, single-lane road. In an emergency, fire engines and evacuating residents could be at a similar standoff.

“When you think about everything that needs to be done to make this place safe, it’s mind-boggling,” said Turbeville, a 24-year veteran with the state firefighting agency.

Fitch Mountain, a tree-covered, 990-foot-high point on a bend in the Russian River, is an idyllic rural area, teeming with wildlife and screened off from urban noise and lights.

It is also a Cal Fire-designated high fire-risk zone, abounding with potential to erupt in flames threatening the lives and property of residents in about 340 homes.

“Wind from any direction could fan an ignition source,” states the Fitch Mountain Park and Open Space Preserve Management Plan. “Steep slopes all around can allow for the uphill thermal rush of flames through areas of continuous fuels from ground to treetop.”

And Fitch Mountain is just one of 40 Sonoma County “communities at risk” cited in a Fire Management Plan for Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit. Across the three-county region more than 70 populated areas are at risk.

The list includes areas around the cities of Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Windsor, Cloverdale, Sonoma and Petaluma, as well as the smaller communities of Camp Meeker, Bodega, Glen Ellen, Kenwood, Bennett Valley, Valley Ford and Boyes Hot Springs.

The 1,576-square-mile county, bludgeoned by the firestorms of 2017 that killed 24 people, destroyed 5,334 homes and did about $9 billion in insured property damage, is an ideal breeding ground for such conflagrations, experts say.

Wildland fire behavior depends on three primary factors — fuels, topography and weather — and Sonoma County has all three conducive to big burns. The same holds true for neighboring Napa and Mendocino counties, and Lake County, where wildfires since 2015 have burned more than half of the territory.

Climate change is stoking the risk, according to experts, with rising average temperatures that can make fire seasons longer and more severe.

More than half of Sonoma County has been rated by Cal Fire as moderate or high fire hazard risk, with very high hazard zones in the mountainous eastern range, along the coast north of Salt Point State Park and in small pockets in west county and around Lake Sonoma.

The upshot, Turbeville said, is ominous: “Every square inch of California can burn. It’s just how bad or how often or how soon.”

No one knows what 2019 will bring, but there have already been 14 major wildfires reported by Cal Fire from Siskiyou to San Diego counties.

In some fire-prone Sonoma County communities, residents are well aware of the situation.

‘Every square inch of California can burn’

California’s recent fire history

The 2017 and 2018 fire seasons were the most destructive in state history, with more than 16,500 wildfires scorching more than 2.8 million acres, including the catastrophic Camp fire that virtually erased the Butte County town of Paradise, killing 85 people and destroying more than 18,800 structures.

The Tubbs fire in 2017 sped from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in just over four hours, propelled by 60 to 70 mph winds. Stopping it was impossible, as firefighters and other first responders spent the night saving lives rather than fighting the blaze, Turbeville said. It followed the same course as the Hanly fire of 1964, which was stopped at the edge of a what was then a much smaller city.

Factors fueling wildfire

Vegetation

The southern third of Sonoma County consists of grasslands and oak woodlands; highly flammable nob cone pine and chaparral landscapes are to the east, along the Napa and Lake County lines in a very high fire hazard area; and mixed redwood and fir forests are found across the county, heavily along the coast and lower Russian River area, according to a Sonoma County Hazard Mitigation Plan Update in 2017.

Topography

Fire moves uphill faster as the flames preheat fuels in its path, while downhill slopes tend slow the flames. The hills of the Coastal Range rise abruptly from the coastline to more than 2,000 feet, and the Mayacamas Mountains on the county’s eastern edge rise from sea level valleys to up to 4,500 feet on the slopes of Mount St. Helena.

Steep terrain, including canyons, gulches and drainages, can act as chimneys, funneling hot air, gases and embers ahead or outside of the main fire. Mark West Canyon helped propel the Tubbs fire in 2017, which killed 22 people and destroyed 4,651 homes, most of them inside the city of Santa Rosa.

Weather

Long, arid summers guarantee that fuels will be dry by fall, when Diablo winds from the east pick up, creating the tinderbox conditions California has experienced in recent years, with climate change now seen by experts as a major contributing factor.

If statewide average temperatures rise 5.5 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit, the risk of large wildland fires is expected to increase about 20 percent by 2050 and 50 percent by the end of the century, the county’s hazard plan notes.

“There’s just a ton of risk up here,” said Priscilla Abercrombie, a Fitch Mountain resident for seven years.

During the 2017 firestorm, cellphone, WiFi and landline service on the mountain went down, leaving residents with only radio for information, she said. No fires came close, but it reminded Abercrombie that evacuation could easily be compromised with just one road going around the back side of the mountain and a web of one-lane roads on the slopes that could easily get jammed.

If a fire started along South Fitch Mountain Road, it could threaten 10 to 15 homes in the first half hour, Turbeville said. Evacuation would be Cal Fire’s top priority and residents should be prepared to walk out, if necessary, he said.

The mountain’s Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies group, known as COPE, held a training session May 17 with Turbeville and Don McEnhill, executive director of the nonprofit Russian Riverkeeper group. The session focused on using the river as a community refuge area in the event of wildfire.

The “homework assignment,” Abercrombie, the group’s co-leader, said, was for residents to plot a way to reach the river in the dark. The best option would be a large gravel bar, while going into the water would be a “last choice.”

Residents along the river could consider posting signs at the access points, she said.

Turbeville said in an interview that the manicured green Healdsburg Golf Club on the mountain’s west flank would be a more suitable community refuge.

There hasn’t been a major fire on the mountain in anyone’s memory, so there’s no institutional knowledge of how to handle one, Abercrombie said.

Camp Meeker, a west county community of about 1,000 residents on Bohemian Highway, is another rural haven with a host of wildfire worries. Small homes are close together on small lots with meager defensible space and a high risk of house-to-house ignition.

The roads are so steep and narrow that motorists can turn only in one direction at some intersections.

As fall approaches, a “great sense of dread” pervades the community, said Richard Seaman, a New Zealander who moved up from San Diego five years ago. The community, he noted, was built as a “holiday camp” for San Francisco residents who came up by train to cabins in an area that had been clear cut down to the Russian River, starting in the 19th century.

Second-growth redwoods now stand amid an abundance of brush, small fir and bay laurel trees and dead tan oaks, all highly flammable. Seaman, a Camp Meeker Volunteer Fire Department board member, founded Fire Safe Camp Meeker to clear out the hazards, restoring the forest to a more natural state.

“We really want to turn the forest into our ally instead of our enemy,” he said.

That could take 20 years, so the group’s initial goal is to clear the unwanted trees from Camp Meeker’s 13 miles of roads, creating fire breaks and reducing the risk of a burning tree falling across a road.

Residents also hope to develop an alternate route out of Camp Meeker connecting to Willow Creek Road, a project that would require consent from private landowners.

“A fire could wipe out Camp Meeker this summer, or it might not happen for 50 years,” Seaman said.

There’s been no major wildfire in the area since 1847, which Cal Fire officials say is another reason for concern over built-up fuel.

Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said the entire west county, from Jenner to Sea Ranch on the coast, inland to Cazadero and Annapolis and all along the lower Russian River, is ripe to burn.

Redwood forests are mixed with trees killed by drought and sudden oak death; older homes line narrow roads in the hills amid brush and heavy timber.

“You can do defensible space, but you can’t cut every tree down,” Baxman said, referring to the practice, advocated by Cal Fire and county officials, of clearing and trimming vegetation around homes.

The west county’s last major fire was on Creighton Ridge, which burned 12,000 acres in August 1978.

Residents can’t count on outside help, and should be self-reliant, with essentials packed in “go bags” ready for evacuation early — before roads are jammed — rather than late in the face of an oncoming fire, Baxman said. Neighborhoods should have phone networks to make sure everyone is aware of the threat.

“It’s all about awareness,” he said. “Taking care of yourself, your family and your neighbors.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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