Sonoma County under siege — ferocious winds spreading Kincade Fire amid mass evacuations

Ferocious winds swept across the massive Kincade Fire near Geyserville early Sunday as thousands of firefighters battled to keep the flames from spreading southwest through dense cities and towns toward the Pacific Ocean.

By 2:30 a.m., gusts of up to 80 mph had been measured in the area. The fire appeared to be pushing south toward Highway 128, the Alexander Valley and Healdsburg, with embers blowing well ahead of the main conflagration and igniting spot fires. The historic windstorm was expected to remain intense through the late morning.

At 2:50 a.m., the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said in an alert to residents, “Deputies in the area of Chalk Hill Road and Alexander Valley are reporting that the wind is really starting to pick up, as is the fire activity. If you are still in this mandatory evacuation area you need to leave now while you still can.”

The blaze had Sonoma County, devastated by wildfire just two years ago, once again under siege. The county resembled a disaster zone from end to end.

Some 90,000 residents has been ordered to flee their homes — including those in the touristy wine capital of Healdsburg, with its boutique hotels and tasting rooms, and the community of Larkfield-Wikiup, which saw whole subdivisions flattened by the Tubbs Fire of October 2017.

As of 1:30 a.m., the Kincade Fire in and around Geyserville — possibly sparked Wednesday by PG&E equipment that had been left on despite the outage — had blackened 26,000 acres and destroyed 31 homes and 46 other structures, according to Cal Fire.

The fire was just 11% contained, or surrounded. More than 2,800 firefighters and upward of 250 engines worked in rugged hills and canyons seeking to boost that figure as they prepared for winds from the northeast forecast to reach 40 mph — with gusts up to 80 mph.

At 1:41 a.m. Sunday, the Sonoma County Fire District sent an alert warning: “Fire activity has increased, if you are in the MANDATORY EVACUATION area and have NOT evacuated, DO SO NOW! There is an imminent threat to life safety!”

In the Santa Rosa neighborhoods of Coffey Park and Fountaingrove, residents in brand-new homes just rising from the ashes were warned they might be next to evacuate.

Just about everyone else in the county was either under an evacuation order, an evacuation warning, or a power outage imposed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to keep additional blazes from sparking.

“We’re kind of at the mercy of Mother Nature right now,” said Jonathan Cox, spokesman for the state’s Cal Fire agency. “Batten down the hatches and hope the storm passes.”

Coffey Park, which became a symbol of the ruin caused by the Tubbs Fire, still had power early Sunday as residents waited to find out whether they would once again be ordered to evacuate.

Naea Kaluahine, 26, stood outside her brother’s home, taking a break from a Harry Potter-themed Halloween party. They had considered canceling the event after hearing Saturday about the mandatory evacuation orders for other parts of the county. Everyone was constantly checking their phones for updates.

“We have to-go bags packed in our cars right now,” Kaluahine said. “So we’re ready, but we’re trying not to let it get the best of us.”

A few blocks away, Jeff Rodrigues, 33, sat on the sidewalk outside his home, watching to see if flames might peek over a ridge in the distance. He had lived in Coffey Park for two years before he lost his home in the Tubbs Fire, and he still hasn’t completely moved back in. A landscaper had been by earlier in the day to work on his front yard.

His next-door neighbor Darby Davy, 56, pulled up to her garage. She was staying with a friend nearby, taking shifts to monitor whether they would have to leave.

“What’d you move back here for?” she yelled over to Rodrigues. “Just so we could get evacuated again?”

“I don’t want this beautiful home to burn,” Davy said. “It felt like I had just got my life back together.”

As she prepared to head back to her friend’s place, she offered Rodrigues a drink: “Do you need a beer out of my refrigerator before I lock up?”

As of early Sunday, no deaths had been been reported in the Kincade Fire. Two civilians and one firefighter sustained non-life-threatening injuries Friday after the firefighter deployed his personal fire shelter to save himself and the two fleeing residents.

All over Sonoma County, Saturday had been a day of preparation and worry. Authorities continually expanded evacuations while opening shelters for evacuees. Fleeing residents jammed Highway 101 and lined up to fill their tanks at gas stations. Stores in Sonoma County and well beyond sold out of ice, batteries, portable generators and other supplies.

Evacuated areas included Windsor and Mark West Springs as well as Guerneville, Forestville, Occidental, Bodega Bay and other spots along the Russian River and the coast.

Among those who had to move on were roughly 100 patients at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, who were transferred to medical facilities in Novato and San Francisco. Sonoma County officials had to empty a jail as well, just in case.

National Weather Service meteorologist Drew Peterson said the area was expected to see “extreme, extreme” wind conditions. The strongest gusts were expected to pick up early Sunday in the hills and ridges and continue into Monday — a more intense and longer-lasting windstorm than the one that drove the 2017 fires across Wine Country.

On Saturday, in a last-ditch effort to halt the progress of the fire before the winds picked up, hundreds of firefighters aided by airplanes and helicopters preemptively burned vast stretches of grassland to create a fire break. The back-fires, many set along Pine Flat Road east of Geyserville as the sun went down, were designed to create a buffer zone between the fire and the many towns of the Sonoma Valley.

“We want to make sure it doesn’t go down any farther,” said Capt. Mike Tompkins of the Tiburon Fire Department.

His crew was part of a team using drip torches to light dry brush and grass on fire. Another team, high on a ridge above, was lighting fires back toward Tompkins’ team so that the flames from each side would merge and create one big fuel break. Asked if it would work, Tompkins raised crossed fingers and said, “We’ll find out.”

In Healdsburg and Windsor early Saturday, residents and businesses rushed to pack up and get out of town. Danielle Kuller, the manager at Amy’s Wicked Slush ice cream store in Healdsburg, said the store shut down and sent employees home.

“We’re just trying to make sure everyone’s safe,” Kuller said.

By afternoon, the only people still allowed in Windsor were law enforcement personnel putting barriers on roads, driving through neighborhoods with loudspeakers and sirens, and going door to door to reach residents.

“It was nuts,” said Brian Benn, who waited 15 minutes to fill up at a gas station in north Santa Rosa, just outside the evacuation area, where he said the lines for each pump were six cars deep. “You can tell people are feeling a little panicked, and trying to get their stuff together.”

About 90 people under a previous mandatory evacuation order from the Geyserville area spent Friday night at an emergency shelter at the Healdsburg Community Center, Red Cross spokeswoman Barbara Wood said. Half a dozen new arrivals joined other residents at the former elementary school. Restaurants provided meals and concerned citizens dropped off books, toothbrushes and fresh chrysanthemums for the dining hall tables. But by Saturday, the shelter was itself evacuated.

Down the road, Jorge Vazquez, 31, who works in the maintenance department at the Best Western Dry Creek Inn in Healdsburg, was tasked with going door to door telling guests to leave. Each was given 30 minutes. Many there were also evacuees from the Geyserville area, forced to make their second evacuation in three days.

“It took some convincing to get them to leave,” Vazquez said. In one case, he said, he had to threaten to call the police.

New evacuation centers were opened at the veterans halls in Santa Rosa and the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma, where about 600 beds were full as of 12:30 a.m. Sunday. An RV area was also packed. Petaluma’s popular business district appeared to have power.

Fire-friendly weather conditions affected much of Northern California, where as many as 940,000 customers were expected to lose electricity in planned Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power outages designed to prevent the outbreak of additional fires.

With what forecasters called a “potentially historic” windstorm expected Saturday night into Sunday, PG&E began shutting off power to as many as 2.8 million people across huge swaths of the state in an attempt to avert wildfires. The utility said homes and businesses could lose power in portions of 38 counties across the Bay Area and throughout Northern and Central California.

“The next 72 hours will be challenging,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a Napa event Saturday. “I could sugarcoat it, but I will not.”

The planned outages were unprecedented, affecting far more people than two previous shutoffs. In the last widespread round of planned outages this month, 738,000 residences and businesses in Northern and Central California had their electricity cut off.

The first blackouts began Saturday afternoon, affecting portions of counties in Northern California and the Sierra foothills — Amador, Butte, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Joaquin, Sierra, Siskiyou, Shasta, Tehama and Yuba counties. They later spread to the Bay Area, affecting Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties.

The Marin County Sheriff’s Office said it expected the outages to affect 99% of the county.

“It almost feels like an apocalypse,” said Armand Quintana, manager at Jackson’s Hardware in San Rafael. “There are lines at the gas station, people are buying ice from grocery stores, they’re out of ice. I’m looking for zombies.”

The store ran out of its stock of 50 generators, which sell for $1,100 to $5,000. Just hours before the expected power outages Saturday, it ran out of flashlights, batteries, candles and other power-outage supplies.

Smoke from the blaze was wafting through the Bay Area and could be sniffed on Saturday in downtown San Francisco. Air quality experts advised that buying masks and filters is no substitute for finding clean-air spaces, such as libraries and shopping malls.

“Masks may not be the answer for a lot of people,” said Dr. Jan Gurley of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “Sometimes they make you feel a little better. But there are no substitutes for getting to where the air is clean.”

Air quality throughout the Bay Area was expected to be “unhealthy for sensitive groups” and a Spare the Air Day was declared by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. It was the 20th of 2019, compared with 13 days in all of 2018, 18 days in 2017 and 27 days in 2016. Residents were advised to limit outdoor activity and avoid driving and wood burning.

Newsom, who toured the fire area Friday, stepped up his criticism of PG&E, as state regulators looked into whether the utility company’s equipment played a role in the fire.

The company reported Thursday that equipment on one of its transmission towers broke near the origin point shortly before the Kincade Fire was reported at about 9:27 p.m. Wednesday. Power had been shut off in the area, but not on that specific transmission line, in an effort to prevent such an event.

If the investigation were to conclude that PG&E equipment ignited the Kincade Fire, it would be the latest blow for the utility, already mired in bankruptcy court and closely monitored on federal criminal probation.

Shares of the utility dropped early Friday and ended the day down 31%, wiping out $1.2 billion in shareholder equity. At $5, the share price was below even its low point in January when PG&E, weighed down by billions in potential wildfire liabilities, announced it would file for bankruptcy.

Chronicle staff writers John King, Catherine Ho and David Curtis contributed to this report.

Kurtis Alexander, Steve Rubenstein, Alexei Koseff and Demian Bulwa are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: kalexander@sfchronicle.com, srubenstein@sfchronicle.com, alexei.koseff@sfchronicle.com, dbulwa@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander @SteveRubeSF @akoseff @demianbulwa

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