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SANTA ROSA – This time, they knew it was coming.
Fierce winds on Sunday continued to push the Kincade Fire farther into Sonoma County, torching wineries, hilltop homes and threatening the towns of Healdsburg, Windsor and Calistoga. In the largest evacuation in county history, some 180, 000 people from the Wine Country to the coast were ordered to leave as more than 54, 000 acres were charred by the rapidly growing blaze. Just 5 percent of the fire is contained, down from 10 percent, as firefighters braced for more blazes that were expected to kick up with the winds again late Sunday night.
Unlike the Tubbs Fire that wiped out two Santa Rosa neighborhoods two years ago, and the Camp Fire last year that killed 88 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, no one in this inferno’s path has died as of Sunday night.
It’s not by chance. Even though all of the ingredients were set for a “worst-case scenario” with historic wind speeds reaching 93 mph at their peak early Sunday morning and tinder dry vegetation at the height of fire season, extreme precautions including a huge PG&E power shut down, an epic evacuation and massive firefighting preparations have held the worst at bay. No one could bear a repeat of the past two catastrophes.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve learned a lot, and our tactics have changed, and our attitudes maybe have changed because of what we’ve lost,” Rhett Pratt, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said Sunday afternoon. “We’ve been bitten by these fires many times over the last couple of years, and nobody wants to be in that position again.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sunday declared a statewide emergency, saying California would be “deploying every resource available” to battle the blaze and aid the thousands of affected residents.
Although not under mandatory evacuation Sunday afternoon, residents of Calistoga, in Napa County – where the Tubbs Fire began – were urged to prepare to flee as an ominous plume of smoke loomed over the horizon to the north.
In a residential area of Windsor on Sunday afternoon, just east of Highway 101, dozens of sheriff’s cars circled cul-de-sacs with their sirens blaring and lights flashing, urging residents through loudspeakers to leave immediately.
Although no deaths have been reported, as of Sunday evening, the fire has taken its toll: 94 structures were destroyed, including 31 homes, and 17 structures were damaged in the blaze that began Thursday afternoon. Highway 101 north of Santa Rosa has been closed from Arata Lane in Windsor to Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg. Two firefighters suffered burn injuries Sunday, one minor and a second who was airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center.
Thousands more structures are threatened by a blaze officials say may not be contained until Nov. 7. For those who already have lost their homes and property, the impact is immense.
“I lost my whole life, 50 years of work, ”said noted artist Wade Hoefer, 71, whose apartment in Healdsburg and the 4, 000 – square-foot art studio he leased went up in flames Sunday morning , as did the Soda Rock Winery on the same property next door.
Hoefer’s large landscape paintings have been exhibited in major cities around the world and often sell for $ 10, 000 to $ 40, 000 a piece. He lost about 100 of them, he said, along with his plaster sculptures.
He sat in his Mercedes SUV covered in ash in a parking lot Sunday not far from the remains of his home. His phone was dead. Tears ran down his cheeks.
“I’m trying to assess,” he said. “One day you’re flying high, and the next you’re down to nothing. It’s an extraordinary feeling. ”
Even his girlfriend from Denmark, with whom he survived the Tubbs Fire, said she’s leaving. “She’s had it. She wants to go home. This is the final final, ”he said. ‘’ That will be another sad loss. ”
The worst of the winds began after midnight Sunday, when much of the primary firefighting was taking place between Highway 128 in Sonoma County and Healdsburg. By afternoon, the heavy focus was on protecting Windsor from looming flames, officials said. Crews were dealing with multiple spot fires and extreme wind shifts.
“Right now, that’s where we’re working, trying to protect all those structures,” Pratt said late Sunday afternoon. “We’re trying to react to those spot fires as they pop up, but it’s very difficult when the winds are at this level, because they can carry material so far.”
Some crews were still in the Alexander Valley, mopping up hotspots leftover from roaring early morning blazes that took down the Soda Rock Winery and other wineries in the region.
Just as the heavy winds carried the fire toward Windsor, Pratt noted, they could shift again, possibly endangering places such as Calistoga, much of Santa Rosa and other surrounding small towns throughout the vast evacuation and warning area.
Those massive evacuations – a significant hardship for many – are aimed at getting people well out of harm’s way and perhaps lead to a “best-case scenario” for everyone, Pratt said.
“We keep the fires out of the residential areas, nobody gets hurt, and everybody is inconvenienced by the evacuations, but can come home to their own home safely,” he said. “We try to control them as best we can, but we also have to realize we can’t completely control them.”
Map: For the latest fire and evacuation zone information in Sonoma Countyclick here.
At a Petaluma shelter Sunday afternoon, the governor got an earful from Bruce Buckner, a 65 – year-old from Guerneville with emphysema and other medical issues who said the evacuation to a shelter in heavy traffic was bad for his health.
“The fire’s so far away,” Buckner said. “Maybe when it gets to Forest Hills, give me a call, but they didn’t have to make it mandatory now.”
Newsom said that while he understands the frustration, there was “no question” the severe precautions had prevented tragedy.
Fire officials were concerned Sunday about the possibility of the blaze jumping to the west of Highway 101, though it had not done so, officials said Sunday night.
“If anything does start on the opposite side of 101, the western side, (much of) that area hasn’t seen any fire history since the 1940 s, ”said fire behavior analyst Steve Volmer.
If that does happen, it could be catastrophic because the area is filled with dense, old and dry vegetation that would quickly go up in flames.
Evacuations were expanded early Sunday to include most of Santa Rosa, as well as Sebastopol, Bloomfield and Valley Ford and all areas west of Fulton Road, Llano Road and Pepper Road to the Marin County line.
The area included the Coffey Park and Fountaingrove neighborhoods that were ravaged by the 2017 Tubbs Fire.
About 400 people were staying at shelters at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds as of Sunday morning, with a steady stream of evacuees arriving all night.
Linda Chase, 72, who fled her Santa Rosa neighborhood late Saturday with her black cat, Kitty Boy, said it seemed like her neighbors were taking the evacuation orders seriously – a sign of the trauma the city still feels from the Tubbs Fire.
“When it was time to go, the garage doors came up,” Chase said as she sat outside the shelter with Kitty Boy in a cage next to her. “I just hope we don’t have to keep doing this every other year.”
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Officials at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital cleared out the facility Saturday night. The hospital was forced to do the same two years ago with the Tubbs Fire bearing down. Hospital spokesperson Shaun Ralston said 97 patients were being evacuated, including eight babies being treated in the neonatal intensive care unit.
“They’re all relatively healthy,” Ralston said of the infants.
Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa started a voluntary evacuation Saturday night, transferring approximately 110 patients to other area hospitals, before it received a mandatory evacuation notice early Sunday and moved its remaining patients.
Check back later for updates to this story.
Staff writers Thomas Peele and Robert Salonga contributed to this report.
EVACUATION CENTERS FOR KINCADE FIRE
- Santa Rosa Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Rd. , Santa Rosa, CA 95404
- Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Bldg., 1351 Maple Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95404
- Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, 175 Fairgrounds Rd., Petaluma, CA 94952
- Petaluma Veterans Center, 1094 Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma, CA 94952
- Large Animal Evacuation site: Santa Rosa Fairgrounds