Preparedness & Recovery

Fires Break Out Across Wine Country

The sound of explosions, mostly bursting propane tanks, punctuated the rush as authorities raced to evacuate hospitals, senior centers and apartment complexes.

by Julie Johnson, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. / October 9, 2017

(TNS) - As many as 10 wind-whipped fires burned a destructive path across the North Coast early Monday, destroying homes and businesses in Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley while forcing entire neighborhoods to flee in the middle of the night. At least five fires in Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties were threatening residential communities, Cal Fire officials said.

The sound of explosions, mostly bursting propane tanks, punctuated the rush as authorities raced to evacuate hospitals, senior centers and apartment complexes in northwest Santa Rosa while fleeing residents packed the roads.

Just about every fire resource in Sonoma County has been deployed, and at least 25 additional Cal Fire strike teams deployed from across the area to arrive, said Windsor Fire Chief Jack Piccinini, speaking from a central command post near the Kmart store in north Santa Rosa.

“We don’t have enough help. The fire is so big,” Picinini said. “Everyone in Sonoma County is spread out fighting these fires, but they don’t have enough resources to handle something like this. The only thing we can do is hope the wind will come down.”

Cal Fire Division Chief Greg Bertelli urged people close to the fire zones to err on the side of caution and evacuate early.

“Don’t try to stay and sit it out, it’s important to try to help each other and evacuate,” Bertelli said. “Life safety, other things can be replaced, but take yourself, your loved ones.”

The fire burning in Santa Rosa was just one of a series of wildfires burning through swaths of Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties, breaking out in a series starting about 10 p.m. Sunday.

“These blazes have taken place at an individual’s most vulnerable time, when they are home and in bed,” State Sen. Mike McGuire said.

The fire burning in Santa Rosa is believed to have begun late Sunday night near Highway 128 in Napa County and moved down Mark West Road toward Santa Rosa. The fire leveled entire blocks in the Fountaingrove area of Santa Rosa, where three-story homes were burning along Thomas Lake Harris Drive. The city’s new fire station in the area, Fire State 5, was destroyed.

The hills surrounding Santa Rosa glowed red early Monday and evacuees fleeing the fire clogged West College Avenue at 3 a.m., as officials opened additional shelters.

Multiple fires burning in densely populated areas at night propelled by winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour severely strained firefighters, McGuire said.

“Of great concern is Kenwood, Glen Ellen and greater Santa Rosa,” he added.

Darkness made it difficult to determine how many acres had burned and impossible to fight the fires from the air. McGuire said that hundreds of firefighters were en route from throughout the state and that aerial attacks would begin at first light, with winds expected to ease by 9 a.m.

In Kenwood, fire destroyed homes on both sides of Highway 12. Another branch of a wildfire was spreading from Geyserville and heading toward Cloverdale, Sonoma County sheriff’s spokesman Spencer Crum said.

“Up here in the hills, there is lots of fire, lot of smoke, and we have to be very careful we don’t get ourselves strapped,” Crum said. “There are a lot of one-way in, one-way out roads.”

In Santa Rosa, the fire burned through the Sky Farm subdivision above Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood and raced down the hill toward the Larkfield-Wikiup area. The fire tore through homes surrounding Cardinal Newman High School. Santa Rosa’s historic round barn, at the gateway to Fountaingrove, was also burned, as was the Journey’s End mobile home park to the north of Kaiser Permanente’s hospital in Santa Rosa and multiple homes along Hopper Lane.

No air support would be available until first light.

“It’s real bad,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Tuberville said. “This is an example of nature in control, and we are doing what we can, but we’re not being that effective at stopping the fire.”

Wind-whipped fires burned into parts of Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley early Monday morning, destroying multiple homes in neighborhoods to the north and southeast of Santa Rosa.

Both Sutter and Kaiser evacuated patients from their Santa Rosa hospitals as the fire approached. Traffic was backed up at multiple intersections in the Larkfield and Wikiup areas. Many people had abandoned their cars in the streets to flee the flames.

By 3 a.m. flames had jumped Highway 101 on the fire’s westward march, as strong winds pushed ash and smoke over a wide area of the city.

An emergency evacuation center was full at the Finley Community Center in west Santa Rosa, located at 2060 W. College Ave. Cars filled the parking lot shortly before 3 a.m. Monday and traffic was stopped trying to turn into the center.

The Finley Center was crowded with hundreds of evacuees as of 4 a.m. Many seniors from nursing homes from the hillside region were being brought to the center.

Ted Regan, who lives near Calistoga Road, said he saw the glow from the foothills behind his house about 2 a.m.

“It got brighter and brighter and then we saw flames. That’s when we said, ‘It’s time to go,’” Regan said.

He, his wife, two adult sons, two dogs, four cats and two birds all got in his car and left immediately.

Rachel McKenzie, who lives on Tuliptree Road, started to evacuate at 2 a.m. with her 12-year-old, Bryce Ward, and her husband, Kevin Ward. They left with their reptiles and dog as they fled their house. Pulling out, their neighbor’s house was fully engulfed.

“It was totally chaotic,” McKenzie.

Her neighbor later called her and said her house burned down.

Laura Mills, who lives on Wedgewood Way in Fountaingrove, was forced to evacuate with her husband at 2 a.m.

“It was very spooky. It was like an apocalypse,” Mills said of the bumper-to-bumper traffic as she left her house.

Authorities were directing evacuees to the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, 1351 Maple Ave. The Petaluma Community Center, at 320 N. McDowell Blvd., was also opened as an evacuation center. The Sonoma County Fairgrounds is open for people with large animals; access the fairgrounds via Gate 7 on Aston Avenue. Bridge of Faith church, at 920 Link Lane in Santa Rosa, also opened its doors to evacuees.

In the Sonoma Valley, Ramekins culinary school and inn, 450 W. Spain St., was open as a shelter.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered from a wildfire reported between Calistoga and Santa Rosa, to the east of Porter Creek Road and Petrified Forest Road, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office announced shortly after 11 p.m.

Evacuations were ordered along Porter Creek, Petrified Forest, Franz Valley and Mountain Home Ranch roads. Deputies were dispatched to help firefighters and CHP officers with evacuations.

“If you live in this area, please be alert for the danger,” the Sheriff’s Office said shortly after 11 p.m. “We are not on scene yet and haven’t been able to determine the best evacuation route.”

Many trees were down on Calistoga Road and 911 lines were inundated with callers reporting smoke. Dispatchers asked the public to refrain from calling, unless they were facing an immediate emergency.

Multiple fires broke out Sunday night as strong winds buffeted the area. In Sonoma County, fires were reported in Santa Rosa, at Mark West Springs and Riebli roads; in Windsor at Shiloh Road and Conde Lane; in Sebastopol at Highway 116 and Fredericks Road; in Kenwood, on Lawndale Road; and in Glen Ellen, on Dunbar Road.

Multiple structures were burning early Monday near downtown Kenwood, where the fire had crossed over Sonoma Creek. Fires were burning on both sides of Highway 12 in swirling winds, with gusts of 5o to 60 miles per hour. Multiple structures were also burning on Adobe Canyon Road, east of Kenwood across Highway 12.

In Napa County, firefighters were battling a 200 acre fire off Atlas Peak Road south of Lake Berryessa, Cal Fire reported.

The Red Cross has exhausted its volunteer pool and is seeking additional volunteers, according to the City of Santa Rosa Facebook page. Those willing to help with check-in and supply distribution are encouraged to call 707-543-4542 or go to Elsie Allen High School, 599 Bellevue Ave. or Cook Middle School, 2480 Sebastopol Rd.

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