Update: At an evening briefing, Cal Fire officials said the Kincade Fire, which started Wednesday night near Geyserville and was approaching the town of Windsor as of Sunday evening, had burned at least 54,298 acres and its containment had gone down to 5 percent from 10 percent earlier in the day.
Two firefighters were burned while battling the blaze — one taken to an area hospital by ambulance and another taken by helicopter to a burn center in Sacramento..At least 94 structures had been destroyed and 17 damaged, and almost 80,000 more structures were still threatened by the wildfire, he said.
-Dan McMenamin, Bay City News
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Fueled by powerful winds, the massive Kincade fire continued its southwest march across Sonoma County, burning winery properties and threatening to jump Highway 101 as more than 2 million people across the region were thrown into darkness because of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. blackouts.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency Sunday as wildfires spread throughout California, burning tens of thousands of acres and forcing evacuations of more than 180,000 people. The 30,000-acre Kincade fire has destroyed 79 structures and threatens an additional 31,000.
“We are deploying every resource available, and are coordinating with numerous agencies as we continue to respond to these fires,” Newsom said. “It is critical that people in evacuation zones heed the warnings from officials and first responders, and have the local and state resources they need as we fight these fires.”
The biggest concern is that the fire will cross Highway 101 to an area that hasn’t burned since the 1940s, fire officials said Sunday. Officials worry the blaze will spread into agricultural land mostly used to grow grapes and reach a dense mountainous region of old-growth redwood forest.
The National Weather Service recorded one gust Sunday morning at 96 mph.
The fire threatened Calistoga, and officials on Sunday ordered residents to leave the small Napa Valley city. Healdsburg and Windsor, north of Santa Rosa along the 101, also remained under evacuation orders.
Structures in the famed wine country were burning, including some owned by wineries in the Alexander Valley. The Soda Rock winery along State Highway 128 near Healdsburg was consumed early Sunday morning.
At dawn in Healdsburg, Ron Babbini stood with two friends on the sidewalk in front of his house.
Streets were littered with branches from the wind that was driving down the foothills and to the south. In the town square, red umbrellas in front of a cafe had toppled and the only vehicles on the road were neon green fire engines and police SUVs.
Babbini said the night had been mostly calm. But nearby Fitch Mountain had him worried. He stood looking at vast plumes of smoke rising above its slopes. They had not been there Saturday.
“It’s actually been worse in the last hour or so with the wind,” Babbini said.
PG&E customers struggling without electrical power could remain in the dark until Wednesday, utility spokeswoman Mayra Tostado said Sunday. The next outages will hit customers in Kern, Fresno and Madera counties, she said.
The blackouts started at 5 p.m. Saturday and will not end until the company determines the outage areas are free from dangerous wind conditions, she said.
Once the wind subsides, PG&E will send out thousands of electrical workers to visually inspect all the lines for possible damage. The utility warned that it could take up to 48 hours after the winds subside to complete the inspections and reenergize the lines.
Forecasters said high winds are expected to continue through midday Monday.
Cots filled a giant room at Petaluma Veterans Memorial Hall, an evacuation center for those forced out by the flames. A homestyle breakfast of pancakes, eggs and sausage links was served in an adjacent room.
Some watched the local news, as others filed in and out of the hallways, unsure of their next move. “I’m trying to figure out what’s going on,” one woman was overheard saying into the phone.
Windsor resident Eva Mendoza had packed only a few items, including a toothbrush and a change of clothes, before finding a place that would accept her cocker spaniel Natalia.
Saturday should have been a happy day _ it was her 52nd birthday and she had plans to attend a concert that evening in San Francisco. But then the evacuation orders came.
In her rush to vacate, she left pictures and mementos behind. “I didn’t have time to wrap anything else,” she said through tears.
Kayla Williams, 26, and her family ate lunch at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Auditorium on Sunday after leaving their Larkfield home.
They were told there is no room at the evacuation center, so the Williams don’t know where they’ll go to next. Williams kept her voice low, describing how her 4-year-old son asked her if they’re going to live in a car permanently. Both her two sons have cried, begging to return home.
“I don’t know what to tell them. It’s hard when us as adults are panicking and are trying to stay calm for them,” Williams said.
Earlier in the day, firefighters scrambled in the darkness to quell multiple small blazes sparked by embers far from the fire’s main line in the foothills.
By 4:50 a.m., traffic was backed up on the 101 Freeway in Santa Rosa as residents of neighborhoods that burned in the Tubbs fire in 2017 once again left their homes in darkness and uncertainty.
Daniel Barcenas, his two brothers and his 80-year-old grandmother were still in their house before dawn on Sunday, despite an evacuation order that came right up to their street but stopped short of their front door. Barcenas had lost two homes in the last fire.
He lived in Coffey Park in a rental with his grandmother and had just purchased a nearby home. “The day before the fire we had just finished painting,” he said of the house he never got to move in to.
Karen Kristensen was packing up two cars for her 88-year-old mother, Beverly, and herself in Coffey Park.
They too were caught in the last fire in this neighborhood, which burned to the ground. Homes here are still under construction or brand-new. Kristensen just moved back in August.
Last time, they escaped with just some laundry and a few pictures. “I wore shorts for two weeks,” she said. “Everything was dust. There was nothing left.”
Evacuation warnings were issued late Saturday to communities in northern Santa Rosa, including the Coffey Park neighborhood; Sebastopol and surrounding areas; and mountains along the border with Napa County.
Just north of Santa Rosa, Sharon Bowne was visibly anxious as she loaded her SUV to evacuate her newly built duplex near the Fountaingrove neighborhood, where her home burned in the Tubbs fire. At her feet were boxes of neatly folded linens and an antique waffle maker that she didn’t want to part with. A bench with a needlepoint top wasn’t going to fit. Every inch of space was packed.
The evacuation order had just come down about an hour earlier, after darkness had fallen, and with the threat that the power would be cut any moment.
“I’ve already had my meltdown today,” she said. “They’re shutting it off and we only have two little flashlights.”
The last time fire came through, she had no warning. Bowne woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and smelled smoke; she and her husband barely got out in time.
In Healdsburg, in the heart of wine country, most of the 11,000 residents heeded the mandatory evacuation that began at 10 a.m. Saturday, piling into cars that turned the 101 south toward San Francisco into a bottleneck of traffic. By 3:30 p.m., the town was nearly empty in an evacuation process that was executed more smoothly than during the Tubbs fire, which roared through Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties in what was then the most destructive wildfire in California history.
Rhea Borja, a Healdsburg spokeswoman, said the city has been working for some time to prepare people for the possibility of a massive departure, including a practice drill last weekend.
Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke said his officers had canvassed door to door throughout the day to confirm that most people were gone.
But not everyone was willing to leave. In a side street not far from the town center, Tom, who declined to give his last name, was in his garage with his son-in-law Kevin drilling holes in particleboard. They planned on sealing the 35 vents on his home, which is surrounded by a thick shading of trees, to prevent sparks from the Kincade fire from flying into their attic.
“My theory, and I think it’s pretty well proven: I believe all the homes lost in the Tubbs fire were from attic vents,” said Tom, a civil engineer.
After sealing the vents, he said, they would leave town — “if the police don’t kick me out first,” he said.
Firefighters were also battling a fire in the East Bay near the Highway 24-Interstate 680 interchange in Contra Costa County. Authorities ordered immediate evacuations in parts of Lafayette.
In Orinda, a city northeast of Oakland, the air smelled strongly of smoke. Strong winds left tree branches and leaves scattered across the streets.
Officials arranged for food trucks to come to Orinda, which has been without power since Saturday night.
Ryan Yeager, 39, used a charging station to power medical equipment for his daughter, Violet, who uses a wheelchair. He said she suffers from a disorder that requires a breathing device and a tube for nutrition.
Yeager ordered a $2,600 battery that was supposed to provide a few days of power but it had not yet arrived. “I don’t mind this as long as we are not having to evacuate,” he said.
Another fast-moving fire erupted near the Carquinez Bridge, which connects Contra Costa County to Vallejo in Northern California.
A Twitter user named Nancy Jordan posted a video showing her and husband driving on the Carquinez Bridge seconds before officials shut it down.
The video shows trees along the side of the road bursting into flames just feet from their vehicle and large plumes of smoke.
“Whoa, you can feel it,” Jordan’s husband is heard telling his wife.
“Oh, my God,” Jordan said.
The cause of the Kincade fire is still under investigation, but some suspicion is already turning to transmission lines owned by PG&E. The utility said Thursday that one of its transmission lines experienced problems Wednesday night around the area where the fire broke out.
In a mandatory report sent to the California Public Utilities Commission, the company said one of its workers noticed that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had taped off the area. PG&E said Cal Fire also pointed out a “broken jumper on the same tower.”
By Anita Chabria, Taryn Luna, Maura Dolan, Teresa Watanabe and Luis Sinco
Los Angeles Times
Times staff writers Jack Dolan and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.