In Windsor, Healdsburg, Geyserville, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, 64,000 people were allowed to return to homes that many spent days worrying they might never see again, after Sonoma County authorities lifted mandatory evacuation orders Wednesday afternoon.
(TNS) — Hours after firefighters feared disaster from high winds whipping the Kincade Fire toward thousands of Wine Country homes, relief washed over Sonoma County on Wednesday after it turned out crews had gained ground overnight on the 76,825-acre blaze and appeared to have gotten the upper hand.
“I would say that there’s a lot of optimism that we have turned the corner for the better on this fire,” said Cal Fire Division Chief Jonathan Cox at a news conference Wednesday night.
The winds had come and gone, not quite as fierce nor as long-lasting as had been predicted. Although the burned area increased by more than 600 acres, firefighters held back the flames licking perilously close to neighborhoods and brought containment of the fire to 45 percent. The fierce winds that drove the fire over the past week have tapered off. Though dangerously dry conditions still exist, forecasts call for calm winds for the next several days.
In Windsor, Healdsburg, Geyserville, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, 64,000 people were allowed to return to homes that many spent days worrying they might never see again, after Sonoma County authorities lifted mandatory evacuation orders Wednesday afternoon. Roughly 5,790 residents are still waiting for word on when they can go back.
Elsewhere, the lighter than expected winds prompted PG&E to cancel planned power shutoffs across much of the Bay Area. Offshore winds brought cold temperatures to the region and also pushed out over the Pacific Ocean the wildfire smoke that had made local air hazy and potentially dangerous.
At one point, the Kincade Fire had roared to the edges of Windsor, raising fears that the city north of Santa Rosa would become the latest community swallowed up by California wildfires. But no homes in the city were destroyed.
As evacuees pulled off Highway 101 on Wednesday, they were greeted by waving city officials holding a sign reading “Welcome home Windsor residents” along Old Redwood Highway.
“We were told to expect massive losses in Windsor, and we were preparing for that. A wall of fire hit the northern part of our town,” Mayor Dominic Foppoli said as people cheered and honked in passing cars. “The best part now is we get to welcome residents home to the same beautiful town they left.”
County officials reminded residents not to eat spoiled food — food left in a refrigerator without power is not safe after four hours — and said pharmacies are able to fill prescription refills during emergency without another prescription from a physician. Trash service will also resume as usual in areas that have been repopulated, and residents can put extra trash out in plastic bags that will be taken without extra charge.
With no rain in the immediate forecast and air throughout Northern California still dangerously dry, officials cautioned that the Kincade Fire is still a threat. As a message that residents still need to be vigilant and prepared to leave if ordered, evacuation warnings remain in place for many of the Sonoma County areas where orders were lifted, as well as parts of the Alexander Valley and the now fire-scorched mountains nearby.
The fire had destroyed 266 structures by Wednesday, of which 133 were homes and seven were commercial buildings. Another 47 structures, 32 of them homes, have been damaged.
“Although the count of damaged and destroyed structures continues to climb, that does not mean that they have been destroyed in the past 24 hours,” said Cox, the Cal Fire division chief. “Our damage inspection teams are really catching up on the week’s worth of work that’s out there.”
Crews had dug in for a difficult battle Tuesday night. Though the winds weren’t as severe as those over the weekend that prompted massive evacuation orders, gusts from 45 to as high as 67 miles per hour were still clocked across North Bay peaks.
The fire grew slightly along its eastern perimeter overnight, according to Cal Fire, but calmer winds elsewhere helped to ease the battle along the fire’s southern perimeter near Windsor and the eastern portion near Middletown.
“We knew that if we got through this without any significant increase in the fire activity or acreage burned, it’s definitely great news for us,” Cal Fire spokesman Edwin Zuniga said Wednesday.
Along the fire’s southwestern perimeter on Mark Springs Road, the dying winds came as a welcome reprieve after crews geared up for the worst, said Santa Rosa fire Capt. Jack Thomas on Wednesday morning.
The area had been ravaged in 2017 by the Tubbs Fire, and crews worried that strong northeast wind currents could push the fire down the canyon.
“These guys got in there and did a lot of work to make sure that there was nothing on the lines should we have any type of fire or winds come through here,” Thomas said.
With a red flag warning still in effect until the late afternoon Wednesday, crews worked to secure perimeters around highly populated areas in the southern and eastern portion of the fire, Zuniga said. Inspectors also continued to canvass neighborhoods — some of which only recently became safe to access — to assess structures that may have been damaged or destroyed.
Looking back over the past day, National Weather Service’s Drew Peterson said Wednesday that weather officials are “incredibly impressed” with how firefighters managed to secure the lines overnight in the face of ferocious winds.
“We’re at the tail end of this,” Peterson said.
Roughly 4,200 personnel from 300 agencies are on the fire line. Cox said the number of resources dedicated to the blaze was apparent during a flight he took over the perimeter on Wednesday.
“The fire line coming to the back of Windsor and Santa Rosa, and the perimeter that has been put up over the last couple of days, is really a testament to the sweat and hours of physical labor that goes into one percent containment.” the division chief said.
Even as Wednesday brought good news, evacuations, power outages and fire danger over the week had taken their toll around the county.
In Cloverdale, just south of where the Kincade Fire broke out, hundreds of immigrant farmworkers fled from their homes over the weekend after sheriff’s deputies came by telling them to leave. Not knowing exactly what was happening and where they would go, most left without food, money or medicine and went to the largest gathering place in the city, the Cloverdale Citrus Fairgrounds.
But the area was not a designated evacuation center and did not have electricity, food or shelter. Families slept in cars and tents in the parking lot.
By Monday, community groups rallied to provide warm meals, care packages and blankets, and by Wednesday the Red Cross had arrived to provide more aid.
“Unfortunately, without gas and money, many of them were stuck here,” said Kate Young, CEO of the fairgrounds. “And personally, I couldn’t just close the gates. The community needed this.”
There also was criminal activity. Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said his deputies arrested at least 10 people for entering evacuation zones without a valid reason as well as three others for looting.
Two years after the Larkfield-Wikiup area was devastated during the Tubbs Fire, Jeri and Tony Deatherage watched from their Bad Ass Coffee shop as residents returned from evacuations. This time around, they came back to find that homes that were newly rebuilt or still under construction had not been touched by the flames.
“Its a huge relief,” said Jeri, as she made another pot of coffee on Wednesday morning.
Although their cafe has been under an evacuation order for more than four days, the couple returned on Tuesday morning to check in. When a firefighter stopped to ask for a cup of coffee, they immediately opened their doors — and have remained open for more than 24 hours straight since.
“There was no second-guessing,” Tony said, handing out free coffee and pastries to any firefighters and first responders who stopped in.
“It’s just sad that October has become such a stressful month,” Jeri said. “In all the years that I’ve lived here, this has not been the norm.
“I guess life is changing.”
Staff writers George Avalos, Annie Sciacca, George Kelly and Erica Hellerstein contributed to this report.
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