Kincade Fire menaces Sonoma

Kincade wildfire October 2019

On-the-spot reports from yet another potentially devastating fire in northern California. Publication times in bold are UK times. Times given in italics are local California times.

Late afternoon 30 October 8.30 am 30 October I awoke this morning to very strong winds, and dove into the latest reports from the Kincade Fire with trepidation only to receive incredibly welcome news. Despite these winds, firefighters have doubled the containment level of the fire to 30%, and it grew overnight a relatively small amount to a total 76,825 acres (31,100 ha). Thanks to that increased containment level, residents (and doubtless many very relieved wineries) are now allowed to return to Dry Creek Valley, which has been downgraded from a mandatory evacuation zone to a mere evacuation warning.

This leaves only a small section of Sonoma County west of Highway 101 under mandatory evacuation orders, and underscores that the critical areas of focus for the fire have shifted north and east. Parts of Lake County and the town of Calistoga in Napa Valley remain under evacuation warning. The high winds have been predicted to fade beginning later today, adding to the glimmers of hope that the worst of this particular disaster may be behind us. Meanwhile new fires continue to spring up in southern California, with no rain in the forecast for the immediate future.

Late 29 October 9:30 am 29 October The Kincade Fire continues to grow, now encompassing more than 74,400 acres, but those who have been following these updates will observe a slowing in its rate of expansion. Most notably the fire grew by only 1,000 acres overnight, thanks to a period of slackening and shifting winds. This significant period of calm provided firefighters a much-needed window to fortify their defences around the most critical residential and business districts threatened by the fire, and dramatically improve the containment of the blaze, from 5% to 15%.

So far 124 structures have been destroyed and another 23 damaged, with no increase in reported injuries nor any reported fatalities. Yesterday was marked by heroic efforts to prevent the fire spreading into the town of Windsor, an effort that was completely successful, though some buildings were lost to the blaze.

The combination of shifting winds and the strengthening fire perimeter on the western edge has resulted in a fundamental shift in the fire’s trajectory which began yesterday and continues today. Instead of burning towards the west, the fire has now wrapped northeast around the back side of Mount St Helena and is headed through extremely rugged and remote territory towards Lake County, prompting evacuation warnings for Middletown and other communities in Lake County. This shift in direction, along with the successful creation of defensive lines along the Highway 101 corridor, resulted in authorities rescinding the mandatory evacuation for the westernmost piece of Sonoma County, allowing residents of Jenner, Bodega Bay, Guerneville, Bodega, Occidental, Freestone and Valley Ford, among others, to return to their homes.

My father and his wife, who have been staying with us in San Francisco during this evacuation, plan to return to their home in Bodega later this morning, though it’s not clear whether they will unpack their car or not, as their area is still under an evacuation warning. The major danger to their surrounding area has largely passed, however. Wildfires are driven by two primary resources: fuel and air. Having burned all the vegetation right up to the Highway 101 corridor, the fire lacks fuel to move west unless high winds are able to blow embers from the currently burning sections far across the highway, a fact that grows less likely as the fire heads north and east.  

Al though the last 24 hours have seen a slackening, high winds are expected to return to the area later today and into Wednesday. For this reason, Pacific Gas & Electric continues to increase the scope of its forced blackouts, which means that many of those who can return to their homes will not have electricity when they do. Millions of Bay Area residents have been without power for more than 60 hours at this point, and schools are still cancelled throughout Sonoma County, given that close to 100,000 residents are still under mandatory evacuation notices.

Late 28 October 9.30 am Monday 28 October Yesterday was a bad day for the Kincade Fire. It jumped from 35,000 acres to 54,200 acres in size, then overnight grew to 66,200 acres (26,790 ha) and containment dropped from 10% to 5%. Some unofficial estimates based on infrared satellite imagery put the total acreage burned at closer to 80,000 acres.

Several more fires sprang to life yesterday and overnight throughout California, prompting mandatory evacuations in the East Bay community of Lafayette as well as in Los Angeles, where a fire is threatening the Getty Museum, and has brought LAX traffic to a standstill. The Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, declared an official statewide emergency, which will allow for the marshalling of federal funding and assistances well as everything that California has deployed thus far to combat the growing disaster.

In the Bay Area, wind gusts were fierce overnight and have given rise to erratic and unpredictable fire behaviour. This morning winds have dropped to 40 miles (65 km) an hour, and are expected to lessen as the day goes on, but a high-wind advisory that was supposed to expire mid afternoon has been extended into the evening.

Ninety-six structures have been destroyed, 16 damaged and more than 80,000 structures remain threatened. No casualties have been reported as of yet, but two firefighters have been injured in the course of duty, one badly. More than 4,150 people across 85 crews from California and surrounding states are assigned to battle the Kincade Fire. Two of the three hospitals in Santa Rosa have been evacuated.

Knight’s Valley has been completely enveloped by the fire in the last day, which means that among others, the Peter Michael Winery has been evacuated, but a text from an employee this morning suggests that the English-owned winery is, so far, unscathed. The fire’s path has shifted in the past 24 hours and it is now expanding towards sites ravaged by the 2017 fires. A famous animal sanctuary and park known as Safari West fell victim to the Tubbs Fire in 2017, and is currently burning again. The fire continues to move towards the Larkfield Wikiup area, between Sonoma and Napa counties, and also across the back of Mount St Helena. The town of Calistoga at the head of the Napa Valley remains in a state of evacuation warning.  

As the business week begins, nearly 200,000 people have been displaced from their homes. Every single school in Sonoma County has been closed in response to the fires, adding one more logistical challenge for families, some of whom have been without power for more than 36 hours and most without internet connectivity except by mobile phone.

Pacific Gas & Electric suggests that even more people may lose power on Tuesday and Wednesday as high winds are forecast to return to the area. The shelves of such stores as are open in Marin and Sonoma Counties have begun to look sparse, and long lines have been reported at petrol stations up and down the coast.

Quite remarkably, firefighters have largely kept the fire from crossing the Highway 101 corridor, and have heroically saved all but a few homes in the town of Windsor from the blaze. The downtown areas of Healdsburg and Geyserville remain unscathed.

Early 28 October 4.00 pm Sunday 27 October Originally expected last night, the fierce winds responsible for the preemptory evacuations of huge sections of Sonoma County have hit with full force today, gusting in some places over 100 miles per hour beginning around mid morning. They are still blowing viciously this afternoon, and sporadic reports from authorities suggest that at least for part of the day, air tanker activity has been halted due to extreme turbulence at higher altitudes. The fire is now 30,000 acres (12,150 ha) and only 10% contained.

Evacuations continue to expand in wine country as the Kincade Fire spreads into the areas first evacuated yesterday, most prominently the town of Windsor, where in the East Windsor area adjoining Foothill Regional Park firefighters are fighting block-by-block to save the residential area from encroaching flames, reportedly with good success.

Alarmingly, the fire continues to also spread south east along Highway 128 toward Knights Valley, prompting evacuation warnings for the town of Calistoga, which sits at the head of the Napa Valley. Mandatory evacuations have continued to expand in Sonoma County and now include the northernmost parts of the city of Santa Rosa, which has added tens of thousands of evacuees to the roads and prompted a new wave of shelter openings farther south.

Close to three million customers remain without power in the surrounding areas, making efforts to provide comfort and services to the nearly 200,000 evacuees much more difficult. 

Unfortunately additional fires have also started elsewhere. A particularly nasty fire recently sprang up in the town of Vallejo and has completely closed Highway 80, a major thoroughfare for evacuees, and a route linking the Bay Area to Sacramento and other metropolitan areas outside the fire zone. Another fire began this afternoon in the hills above Lake Mendocino in Mendocino County and quickly spread to 250 acres at last count. 

Air quality continues to worsen to the west of the fires in the evacuation zones, but so far most of the smoke seems to be blowing out to sea, making a plume easily visible from satellites.

Late 27 October 8:45 am Sunday My father and stepmother rang our doorbell at 4.30 this morning, having been asked to leave by the authorities. They reported huge snarls of traffic and gatherings of people sleeping in their cars just outside of the evacuation zones. They were originally planning to do something of the sort themselves, but after seeing the crowds, continued south to my home.

The mandatory evacuations were expanded to include the northern parts of Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley as wind gusts reached 80 miles (130 km) per hour and firefighters reported columns of flames 100 feet (30 m) high from the tops of conifers in Alexander Valley. Authorities estimate the fire grew by 5,000 acres overnight, and more than 190,000 people have been displaced. Between 2.3 and 3 million residents are without power this morning as PG&E planned power-outages continue.

The fire seems to be spreading south along Highway 128, the main arterial road through Alexander Valley that connects the Sonoma and Napa Valleys. In the process, it continues to threaten and to damage wineries. Dramatic footage on twitter from NBC reporter Bob Redell purportedly shows the Soda Rock Winery completely consumed with flames last night. Additional photos show the scene of total destruction this morning.

Twitter reports by journalists, authorities and private citizens suggest winds have also resulted in flying embers jumping over the Russian River and starting spot fires on the other side. The six-lane Highway 101 and the Russian River present a natural fire barrier that will be a key defensive holding point for firefighter’s attempts to prevent the fire’s spread. Highway 101 has been temporarily closed several times due to both firefighting activity and due to traffic from evacuating residents.

Evacuation centres have rapidly filled to capacity, and communities continue to open more locations to deal with the growing tide of evacuees. A press conference has been scheduled for 10 am by local authorities.

Early 27 October At 6.30 pm yesterday Saturday 26 October local time, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, along with local authorities, issued the most unprecedented mandatory evacuation order in the history of California. These orders were prompted by the Kincade Fire, a 26,000-acre (10,500-ha) wildfire in northern Sonoma County combined with forecasts of historically fierce winds exceeding 70 miles per hour. As of Saturday evening local time, the fire was only 11% contained.

Mandatory evacuation orders had already been issued earlier in the day for the towns of Healdsburg and Windsor, forcing nearly 40,000 residents to leave their homes. But the newest orders require a further 80,000 people to depart and head south or north to safety.

The area affected consists of roughly 400 square miles in the heart of Sonoma County, extending west from the town of Healdsburg to the Pacific Ocean, and stretching from a bit north of the town of Jenner south to the town of Valley Ford.

This area includes the towns of Bodega Bay, Bodega, Freestone, Occidental, Camp Meeker, Forestville, Graton, Ross, Duncans Mills, Guerneville, Cazadero and more, many of them names familiar to wine lovers. It encompasses large swathes of several major wine growing regions, including the Western Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and of course the Alexander Valley, which is most imminently threatened by the blaze. The largest city in the region, Santa Rosa, with its population of 175,000, sits nervously only a few miles to the south.

The fire, which began at 9.30 pm on the evening of Wednesday 23 October in a remote mountainous section of Sonoma County, quickly spread towards the town of Geyserville thanks to exceptionally low humidity and unseasonably warm temperatures. Information regarding its impacts remains tenuous and incomplete, but authorities report that it has destroyed 77 structures and damaged 14 since it began, with rumours of damage to one or more wineries.

The area currently under evacuation, however, contains more than 23,500 structures, according to authorities, who don’t believe that even under the best of conditions they could fully contain the fires’ spread before 7 November. More than 2,800 firefighters are battling the conflagration.

In addition to the mandatory evacuation orders in place, Pacific Gas and Electric has begun cutting power to more than one million residents in an attempt to avoid the anticipated high winds from taking down power lines and sparking additional fires.

As I write these words, I can watch the effect of the power outages ripple across the Bay Area via social media. Reports of power outages in Marin and Sonoma county are flowing in on Twitter and Facebook.

The full ramifications of these evacuations for the wine industry are staggeringly unknown. By my best estimate, the area currently under mandatory evacuation orders includes as many as 400 wineries, and many more vineyards and growers.

A large portion of the 2019 harvest has been brought in, but as I wrote last week in Powerless to pause harvest in California, that is small consolation to vintners who need to tend their ferments and require electricity to run their equipment, including temperature controlled tanks.

In between writing these sentences and checking social media, I’ve been texting with my sister, who is a volunteer firefighter in the town of Bodega, and my father, who lives a few miles outside of town.

My sister is packing a few bags and loading up her car before heading down to the fire station, where she expects to spend the next couple of days. It is to be hoped that she will be dealing with nothing more serious than car crashes as traffic snarls the main roads in and out of the area.

She’s under no illusions, however, about how bad things could get if the promised winds arrive at the strengths they have been forecast.

‘At those wind speeds, embers can blow 10 or 15 miles ahead of the fire and ignite', she said. ‘It may seem like a long way from Healdsburg, but that fire could get to the coast in a matter of minutes.’

My father seems to need more convincing to pack up and go, despite having been made aware that he is under mandatory evacuation, but between myself, my sister, and his reputation for having a good head on his shoulders, I hope to hear that he has packed a bag and gotten on the road soon.

I will try to continue to update this story as the situation unfolds, with hope that the worst-case scenario that authorities seem determined to plan for remains only a scenario, and not the epic disaster it would be if things go wrong.

Image credit: Pixabay.