SANTA ROSA — Fueled by winds that topped 80 mph, the Kincade fire exploded overnight in Sonoma County, burning winery properties and pushing closer to Healdsburg as about 1 million homes and businesses across the region were thrown into darkness because of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. blackouts.
Officials evacuated a large swath of Sonoma County, including new orders that covered most of Santa Rosa west of the 101 Freeway and north of Highway 12. The fire has burned more than 30,000 acres and was pushing south toward Highway 128. The 101 Freeway was closed.
Authorities said their priority now was trying to save Healdsburg and Windsor, north of Santa Rosa along the 101. The cities were evacuated Saturday, and on Sunday morning fire officials urged holdouts to leave immediately, saying the winds were pushing the fire rapidly. Officials said 79 structures had been destroyed and 31,000 were threatened.
The National Weather Service recorded one gust Sunday morning at 93 mph.
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.
Firefighters said their goal was to keep the fire east of the 101 Freeway and north of Highway 128.
At dawn in Healdsburg, Ron Babbini stood with two friends on the sidewalk in front of his house.
The mandatory evacuation remained in effect and the trio were some of the only civilians left in the wine country town. 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,” said Babbini.
If the wind blows the flames across Fitch Mountain, Healdsburg will be in danger, he said.
“Right now it seems to be the most scariest,” he said.
Firefighters were scrambling in the darkness early Sunday morning 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.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom warned that tough times are ahead for the state.
“The next 72 hours is going to be challenging,” Newsom told reporters during his tour of Napa County Saturday. “I can sugarcoat it, but I’m not.”
Across Northern California, communities were bracing for winds to reach historically powerful levels. The National Weather Service expects sustained winds from the northeast of 40 mph to push the Kincade blaze in the direction of Highway 101 and gusts peaking between 60 and 80 mph from midnight until sunrise.
Residents scrambled to leave town and stock up on medicine and food before the power shut-offs. At a mobile home park in American Canyon, Lucille Constantine, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, told Newsom that she tried to pick up extra medication from a nearby pharmacy before it lost power. But her health insurance under Medicare wouldn’t pay for the additional treatments until her existing supply ran out, she said.
Constantine, 69, said she was told she could pay more than $1,000 out of pocket for the medication and seek reimbursement later. “You could get it if you have the money,” Constantine said. “But I can’t afford that right now. It’s a month’s rent.”
Another resident of Las Casitas mobile home park showed Newsom a generator he purchased for $800 over the summer. Tom Mogg, 93, said that he can’t afford for the food in his two refrigerators and freezer to spoil during an outage and that his partner, Lillian Crimmins, 87, needs the generator to power a machine that helps her breathe at night.
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., 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.
A few doors down, Brian White was charging some lanterns and listening to a radio scanner. He said he did not intend to leave his house, which had a double fire buffer of a cemetery behind it and a golf course nearby. Only a “hellacious wind storm” would push the fire into town, he said, adding that he was less worried about that likelihood than leaving his home unattended in a vacant city.
But he sent his two children and his wife across town to stay with his parents in case they needed to quickly evacuate. And his Suzuki 650 motorcycle was ready in the garage if all hell broke loose.
Healdsburg Councilman Shaun McCaffery also chose to stay. When the evacuation orders came down, he was in the hardware store buying sprinklers for his roof, and a 400-pound generator sat in the back of his truck. His family was safe in a hotel in Sebastopol, he said, but he was staying behind to protect the family’s home and three cats, Butter, Percy and Inka.
“I just think being an elected official, staying is the right thing to do,” McCaffery said.
At the entrance to the 101, Larry “Doc” Johnson sat waiting for roadside assistance with his two dogs, Clyde and Gunner. A lifelong resident of Windsor, outside Healdsburg, he faced a mandatory evacuation, he said, but his camper blew two tires as he was heading north to the river. The threat of fire didn’t spook him.
“I’ve seen fire on them hills lots,” he said. But if he could get his rig running that night, he said, he’d head out to the coast to go crabbing in Bodega Bay later this week.
Firefighters were also battling a few blazes outside of Sonoma County early Sunday. In eastern Contra Costa County, fire officials got the upper hand on three fires in rural neighborhoods that prompted evacuations _ two in Oakley along the San Joaquin River delta and one in a small, rural neighborhood of Clayton in the mountainous area east of the peak of Mount Diablo.
In the East Bay, residents had been told their power would be out by 10 p.m. Saturday, then 8 p.m., 7 p.m. and finally 5 p.m. The times changed with each update in wind forecasts. Wind is much harder to predict than rain.
Finding ice Saturday morning proved impossible for many residents, but there were bright spots.
Moraga Hardware & Lumber told a local television station Friday that it was receiving a new shipment of lanterns and batteries the next morning. The news spread on online neighborhood forums.
Before 8 a.m., lines had formed at the store. Customers gladly paid $53.51 for a small battery-operated lantern and an eight-pack of D batteries.
A Moraga resident identified as AM Wittek on a neighborhood forum had a generator. Wittek offered to loan it to anyone who needed it for medical reasons.
Others shared advice for keeping freezers and refrigerators cold: Adjust the temperatures to levels below what manufacturers recommend, and freeze plastic water bottles and other containers with water to keep food cool when power was lost.
The planned shutdown, however, sparked plenty of grumbling about PG&E. Mogg, the American Canyon mobile home owner, blamed the utility for paying excessive salaries rather than focusing on public safety.
“For too many years, instead of fixing the infrastructure, hardening the lines and doing all the things they should have been doing to make this a first-class electrical system, they’ve been pouring it into executive salaries, stockholders,” Mogg said.