Home Fire News Nearly 50,000 facing evacuations as fires besiege California wine country

Nearly 50,000 facing evacuations as fires besiege California wine country

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SANTA ROSA, CA – SEPTEMBER 28: Wildlife is seen running into an engulfed Skyhawk Park as firefighters battle the Shady Fire as it makes its way towards homes along Mountain Hawk Drive in Skyhawk Park on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020 in Santa Rosa, CA. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

By Luke Money, Anita Chabria, Rong-Gong Lin II and Hayley Smith
Los Angeles Times
(TNS)

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Another series of wildfires stormed California’s wine country overnight as flames destroyed numerous homes and other buildings in Napa and Sonoma counties and forced tens of thousands to flee.

The number of structures damaged or destroyed was unclear as of early Monday, “but there was significant loss” in some areas, Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said.

All told, almost 34,000 people have been ordered to evacuate, officials said, while more than 14,000 others have been warned they, too, may have to leave.

A number of homes began to burn early Monday in the suburban eastern neighborhoods of Santa Rosa. The city of 177,000 residents, Sonoma County’s most populous, was devastated three years ago by the Tubbs fire, which was also driven by strong winds and destroyed about 1,500 homes in the 1980s-built northwestern Coffey Park neighborhood.

On Monday, it was the suburban northeastern neighborhoods of Santa Rosa that were burning, this time from the Shady fire.

Whipped by powerful, hot and dry Diablo winds coming from the north and east, which showered embers onto the city, the fire engulfed houses in the area of Mountain Hawk Drive, which is lined with two-story tract homes in the Skyhawk development, built in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Chief Ben Nicholls with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said crews contended with “explosive fire growth” that saw the flames “burn approximately 4 miles during the course of about six hours overnight.”

Officials stressed the importance of following evacuation orders when they’re issued. Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Juan Valencia said some people refused to leave and later had to be rescued from their homes.

“Unfortunately, we did have some people that stayed behind,” he said during a briefing Monday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom also emphasized the point, saying that “the dynamics of climate change, the dynamics as it relates to the lack of forest management over the last century, have created a dynamic of real concern as it relates to the spread of these wildfires in ferocious ways.”

“We really, really cannot say it enough: Please heed local law enforcement,” he said Monday. “Please listen to them when they raise that alarm bell.”

Large swaths of Santa Rosa remain under mandatory evacuation orders. Districts in the city’s northeast were ordered to evacuate, including the neighborhoods of Skyhawk, Melita, Stonebridge, the Oakmont Gardens retirement community and Pythian.

Evacuations also were ordered Monday for the Summerfield and Spring Lake areas, according to the Santa Rosa Police Department.

With flames in the distances, busloads of older people were evacuated from the Oakmont Gardens assisted-living community. Elsewhere in the city, cars jammed narrow roads as residents heeded evacuation orders.

Two other fires were also burning upwind of the fire encroaching on Santa Rosa, both of them flanking the town of St. Helena in Napa County: the Boysen fire to the west and the Glass fire to the north.

The Glass fire burned rapidly Sunday through Napa Valley’s famed Silverado Trail, known for its wineries. One building in flames was the distinctive stone structure at the Chateau Boswell Winery, which marked its 40th anniversary last year, several miles northwest of St. Helena.

Cal Fire has since grouped the Glass, Boysen and Shady fires together as the “Glass incident.”

That combined conflagration had burned 11,000 acres with no containment as of Monday morning, according to Cal Fire. It was threatening 8,543 structures.

Ash could be seen falling from the sky throughout the region.

“The fire has been at a dangerous rate of spread and has expanded into Sonoma County,” officials wrote in a morning incident update.

Evacuations were ordered Monday morning for the city of Calistoga from south of Lincoln Avenue, officials said.

In Napa County, mandatory evacuation zones had been expanded to cover the hills on both sides of the northern Napa Valley, flanking the towns of St. Helena and Calistoga, as well as the east side of the Silverado Trail between Taplin Road and Sage Canyon Road and Sage Canyon Road east to Chiles Pope Valley Road.

A mandatory evacuation zone included the western portion of St. Helena, an area that includes single-family houses and a campus of the Culinary Institute of America, a renowned culinary college.

“Individuals who are seeking shelter are reminded to bring a face covering, practice good hygiene habits and adhere to physical distancing,” Napa County officials wrote in an evacuation update, underscoring the continued threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Monday morning brought a too-familiar sight in Sonoma County: The sun turned into a smoke-shrouded red disk in the sky.

The capricious nature of the fire was evident in the Skyview neighborhood, which had been hit by heavy embers the night before.

With sweeping views of the nearby hills, most of the community’s million-dollar homes remained intact. But a stretch near the top of a hill was dotted with some that had burned to ash.

Firefighters worked to douse one green stucco house that was still aflame. Its second story had collapsed into its three-car garage.

As he stood in front of his house in Spring Lake — a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs and mature oaks nestled against the hills of Trione-Annadel State Park — Mat Tamba watched a fresh plume of smoke rising over a ridge.

“That’s the new something I just saw,” he said, worried.

His son Tyler, 9, daughter Matison, 4, and wife, Noelle, had evacuated to his in-laws’ house Sunday night, but he returned Monday morning to gather more things — toiletries, a Minnie Mouse stuffed animal.

Like many here, current conditions bring back trauma from the 2017 Tubbs fire that destroyed suburban neighborhoods and changed the way people here think about wildfires. Tamba’s in-laws lost their home then, in a neighborhood not far from here.

On Sunday night, when propane tanks began to pop nearby, he knew the situation was serious.

“That’s when it becomes eerie,” he said. “That’s the sign it’s getting to the houses.”

Around the corner, Marilyn Heller had already taken advice from the fire department and put the propane tanks from her grill on the sidewalk in front of her driveway.

Like Tamba, Heller, 72, was packing up her car to get out, pausing to blow a thickening layer of acidic ash off the shiny black hood of her Porsche Cayenne.

She and her husband, Robert, have lived in their ranch house since 1974. Now, everything sentimental — including hand-me-downs from her grandmother and aunt — was packed in 40 boxes and taken to the coast.

As Heller kicked at burned leaves and embers in the gutter, she said she and her husband had discussed staying Sunday night until they saw flames. Her son, a former Marine, had purchased them special heat-resistant straws in case they needed to jump in the pool to survive.

With those, “you can stay under water indefinitely,” she said. But she didn’t “want to be in the way of the fire department.”

Not far away, Ben Lilia, 30, was hosing down his yard and had a sprinkler going on the grass at the house where he had grown up. Lilia said he didn’t intend to leave until he saw flames.

He owns a water truck, originally purchased to fill pools, but it has seen more fire action in recent years.

“I don’t think it will reach this far,” he said of the current fire, noting that the wind had given way to a heavy stillness, broken only by the hum of the generator he purchased last year after planned electricity cutoffs left him in the dark.

Despite the risks, Lilia said this is a neighborhood he loves.

“It’s a good place besides the power outages and the fires,” he said.

Angwin resident James Burville evacuated his home at 5 a.m. Sunday after a power outage.

He went to his church in Calistoga — only to awaken to find that area being evacuated the next morning. After spending more than three hours in a registration line at the Napa County Evacuation Center, he is now hoping for a room and some rest.

Although the Tubbs fire came within 10 miles of his home, he said this experience feels worse.

“I may lose all my belongings,” he said, “and because we had no power, I missed taking my most important things with me.”

Burville had already been thinking about moving closer to his immediate family in Oregon, but the current situation, he said, makes him want to move sooner.

A round of evacuations was ordered in Sonoma County on Monday, covering Trione-Annadel State Park and the area to the south, as well as north of Bennett Valley Road, west of Savannah Trail and east and south of the Santa Rosa city limits.

The three now-unified fires were burning in an area that had not experienced a major burn in the last century, Matt Roberts, a doctoral student in atmospheric science at the University of Nevada at Reno, said in a tweet.

Wildfires are nothing new in wine country. The region has seen several significant blazes in recent years — including the Tubbs and this year’s LNU Lightning Complex fire, which has burned more than 363,000 acres in Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Yolo and Solano counties.

That fire, the fourth-largest in recorded state history, has been blamed for five deaths. It was 98% contained as of Monday.

“My heart also aches for everyone who’s been displaced, who’s been injured, who’s been evacuated, who’s lost property,” U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said Monday. “It’s just one more year of the same thing, and it’s getting a little old.”

The Diablo winds have plunged much of Northern California into a red flag warning, meaning the National Weather Service is highly confident there will be dangerous fire weather conditions.

Such windy conditions can easily loft embers into the air, where they travel and land downwind, igniting new spot fires.

The warning is in effect until 9 p.m. Monday, with forecasters predicting critically low humidity and wind gusts that could reach up to 50 mph at high elevations. The San Francisco Bay Area is also under a heat advisory until 7 p.m. Monday.

Such weather conditions also present a challenge for crews working to wrangle existing fires.

In Butte County, where the deadly North Complex fire is still burning, the Sheriff’s Office issued an evacuation order Sunday night for Pulga, Concow, Big Bend and Yankee Hill, as well as an evacuation warning for the town of Paradise, which was mostly destroyed in the 2018 Camp fire that resulted in 85 deaths and the loss of more than 18,000 structures.

Shawnee Rickson, who has lived in Paradise her entire life, said her family’s home was one of the few left standing after the Camp fire swept through the town.

“Fires are now the scariest thing,” she said, noting that her family always keeps a “fire box” with important documents and pictures ready in case of evacuation.

“Unfortunately, it’s a normal thing that we are getting used to,” she said.

Strong winds were reported in Shasta County, where a fast-moving wildfire ignited Sunday afternoon near the rural community of Igo, about nine miles southwest of Redding. The blaze grew from 50 acres to 400 acres in about half an hour, according to Cal Fire, prompting evacuation orders and sending up a massive plume of smoke.

Named the Zogg fire, it had swelled to 15,000 acres by Monday morning and prompted numerous evacuations. The blaze is zero percent contained.

The latest rash of wildfires adds to what’s already been a historic and devastating fire season in California. So far this year, over 8,100 wildfires have ignited statewide — burning more than 3.7 million acres, killing 26 people and consuming over 7,000 structures.

Five of the six largest wildfires ever recorded in California have started since August and are still burning, according to Cal Fire.

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©2020 Los Angeles Times

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