Sonoma County Fire Grows to 10,000 Acres, Evacuations Ordered

It began after 9:30 p.m. near where PG&E shut off power on Wednesday afternoon — due to high fire danger — to prevent fires from being sparked by downed or damaged power lines. The blaze was 0% contained as of 11:30 p.m.

by J.D. Morris and Lizzie Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle / October 24, 2019
Embers fly across a roadway as the Kincade Fire burns through the Jimtown community of Sonoma County, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. AP/Noah Berger

(TNS) — A fast-moving wildfire ignited late Wednesday in a remote, mountainous stretch of northeastern Sonoma County, rapidly growing to an estimated 5,000 acres amid intense winds and prompting evacuations outside Geyserville.

The fire is burning near The Geysers geothermal plant in the Mayacamas Mountains and the glow of flames is visible throughout the area.

It began just after 9:30 p.m. near where Pacific Gas and Electric Co. shut off power on Wednesday afternoon — due to high fire danger — in an effort to prevent fires from being sparked by downed or damaged power lines.

Dubbed the Kincade Fire, the blaze was 0% contained as of 11:30 p.m., according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Mandatory evacuations are in place for all of Red Winery Road, all of Alexander Mountain Road, Highway 128 from Geysers Road to River Road including River Rock Casino and all roads off River Road in that area, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

Evacuation centers are in place at Windsor High School, 8695 Windsor Road in Windsor, and at the Healdsburg Community Center at 1557 Healdsburg Avenue, according to county government officials.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said there aren’t many heavily populated communities near the fire but hundreds of homes and hunting cabins are scattered throughout that part of the county.

The blaze broke out after the National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for high fire danger. PG&E, whose power lines sparked many fires in the county two years ago, proactively turned off power to 178,000 customer accounts earlier in the day in 15 counties, including Sonoma.

PG&E spokeswoman Karly Hernandez said the Kincade Fire is burning “near the (shut-off) footprint and we are working to gather additional information.” The utility cut power to about 27,830 Sonoma County customers at 3 p.m., she noted.

Hernandez said PG&E had no other information to provide at this point and referred further questions to Cal Fire.

McGuire said he was not currently worried about interference from the PG&E blackouts, which are intended to stop power lines from starting more fires.

“This is an all-hands on deck effort,” he said. “The call has gone out and there is a regional response to this fire. You’re seeing fire agencies from throughout the North Bay responding to the blaze even as we speak, and there is no shortage of resources at this point.”

Authorities’ biggest concern is the high wind speeds that could continue to make firefighting difficult.

Matt Mehle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said multiple stations in the highest peaks near where the fire is spreading recorded wind speeds over 60 miles per hour on Wednesday night. Temperatures are in the upper 60s to low 70s and humidity levels are ranging from 10% to 15%, he said.

The peak wind period is expected to last until about sunrise and will then gradually decrease throughout the day, Mehle said.

An evacuation warning is in place for Geyserville and northern Healdsburg, the Sheriff’s Office said. But a valley floor filled with vineyards — and the Russian River — lie between the fire and those communities.

The Kincade Fire’s glow was visible from Santa Rosa city limits around 11:15 p.m. Wednesday. Emergency dispatchers in the city were flooded with calls from panicked residents, many of whom endured a series of devastating fires in the county two Octobers ago. The Kincade Fire is burning in the same general area of the county as the 2017 Pocket Fire.

Santa Rosa officials stressed that no fires were burning in the city.

Several agencies were responding to the fire, including two strike teams each with five engines sent by the Sonoma County Fire Department.

Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa’s assistant fire marshal, said firefighters in the city and throughout Sonoma County “knew there was the possibility of this.”

“We had extra firefighters on duty because of the red flag warning, and we had additional police officers on duty for the (PG&E shut-offs),” he said.

During the October 2017 Tubbs Fire — California’s second-most destructive wildfire to date — Santa Rosa learned it was important to staff additional resources in advance, Lowenthal said. He explained that “once an incident like this is dispatched or reported, we push all of those additional resources that were staffed up in the direction of the fire, toward the critical needs.”

The Marin County Fire Department has also sent its incident management team, Chief Jason Weber said.

David Huebel, 40, works as a vineyard manager at Hafner Vineyard, which is seven miles outside of Healdsburg. The property was hit by PG&E’s power shut-off Wednesday afternoon, and Huebel was unsure how the family-run vineyard would finish harvesting their cabernet sauvignon.

But then, around 9:35 p.m., a bigger problem loomed. Huebel had stepped outside to turn off his generator when he looked toward the Mayacamas Mountains. His father had worked there since 1984, and they always drew his attention. He saw a faint glow.

“I was asking myself, ‘Is that fire?’” Huebel said. “Everything about the scene was wrong. There shouldn’t have been light right there, it shouldn’t have been orange. It was a couple minutes later I saw a column of smoke. We watched it grow for more than two hours before we left.”

Huebel had watched the Tubbs Fire burn across Sonoma County in 2017, from Calistoga to Santa Rosa. The strange light that flickered in the hills never seemed to end. He quickly called his neighbors, alerting them to the Kincade Fire.

And when the evacuation order for Red Winery Road came at 12:32 a.m., Huebel didn’t hesitate. He left with his wife and two children, 11 and 18.

“Here we go, this one is too close,” he remembers thinking.

San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Lauren Hernandez contributed to this report.

J.D. Morris and Lizzie Johnson are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: jd.morris@sfchronicle.com ljohnson@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @thejdmorris @lizziejohnsonnn

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