An army of firefighters with a larger aerial arsenal at their disposal held made some gains Saturday on devastating wildfires ravaging Wine Country, but a rising death toll offered clear reminder of the peril that still grips the region.
Firefight in Sonoma County reaches second week as flames force thousands to evacuate
KEVIN MCCALLUM AND RANDI ROSSMANN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | October 15, 2017, 12:53AM
| Updated 4 hours ago.
An army of firefighters with a larger aerial arsenal at their disposal held their ground and made some gains Saturday on devastating wildfires ravaging Wine Country, but evacuation orders that forced thousands from their homes before dawn and a rising death toll were clear reminders of the peril that still grips the region.
Northeast winds that arrived early Saturday whipped up a new fire in the hills outside eastern Santa Rosa, and spread an existing blaze outside Sonoma, prompting another round of nighttime evacuation orders.
Thousands of Santa Rosa residents were forced to leave â€” some for the second time since last Sunday â€” while others faced their first mandatory orders in Sonoma.
Aware winds were on their way, firefighters were posted in potential trouble spots ahead of time as law enforcement officers â€” their bullhorns and sirens blaring â€” drove city blocks in Santa Rosa ordering people out of their homes before 3 a.m. They knocked on doors and in some cases returned to homes two or three times, authorities said.
By that time, flames had crept beyond Pythian Road below Hood Mountain Regional Park, east of Highway 12. Authorities were concerned the fire would advance on Oakmont, the retirement community across the highway from the park, and into the city.
The mass evacuation carried out by officers went smoothly, authorities said, allowing firefighters to focus on their job. It was a marked contrast with the helter-skelter operation on the night of the initial firestorm, they said.
â€œIt was flawless,â€� Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said of the morning evacuation of Highway 12 between Calistoga Road and Adobe Canyon Road in Kenwood. â€œThatâ€™s what we can do when weâ€™re prepared.â€�
No homes burned in the area on Saturday, but smoke and flames from the Oakmont fire framed a terrifying backdrop against the mountains, with vineyards and at least one landmark winery â€” Ledson â€” in the foreground.
Fire officials characterized Saturdayâ€™s overall efforts across the region as a success. Firefighters largely held their lines and increased containment of most blazes, including the Tubbs fire, which consumed more than 2,800 homes in Santa Rosa on Monday, and killed at least 22 people in Sonoma County.
The death toll across Northern California from wildfires that started last week increased to 40, including eight people in Mendocino County, six in Napa and four in Yuba County.
Fires in Sonoma County have burned 94,370 acres. Containment on the Tubbs fire grew to 50 percent on Saturday.
To the south in Sonoma Valley, the 46,106-acre Nuns fire jumped a containment line early Saturday morning on the northeast side of Sonoma.
â€œCrews experienced some very intense, some very difficult fire conditions. They did an outstanding job,â€� said Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre, estimating theyâ€™d likely saved hundreds of homes in the fireâ€™s path.
Gusty winds in hilly east Sonoma neighborhoods created what one soot-covered firefighter called â€œislands of fires,â€� threatening homes on Lovall Valley Road. At least three homes burned down on Castle Road less than 2 miles from the historic Sonoma Plaza.
Containment on the Nuns fire was 15 percent Saturday night.
There are now more than 3,400 people assigned to the firefight in Sonoma County. Across the wider region, including Mendocino, Lake, Napa and Yuba counties, where fires are also burning, 30 helicopters, 8 air tankers, and 3 massive 747s are making water and retardant drops, Cal Fire officials said.
â€œItâ€™s definitely a huge help that we have such a huge force of aircraft available to us,â€� said Amy Head, Cal Fire spokeswoman.
The aircraft have been particularly helpful in more remote areas, including the 11,246-acre Pocket fire near Geyerserville.
Lines on the Pocket fire held Saturday, with officials reporting little growth. Containment was at 15 percent.
â€œWe held everything we had on the west, north and south. Itâ€™s the east part thatâ€™s the biggest concern,â€� said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshal Turbeville. â€œThereâ€™s no good control on the east side.â€�
That section is burning toward The Geysers and beyond into Lake County. Growth was slow and Cal Fire officials in Lake County were less concerned about the threat Saturday night.
In Santa Rosa, ridgetop flames early Saturday lit up the eastern horizon, frightening residents who fled west. Some hunkered down in the parking lot of the Safeway on Calistoga Road, watching the firefight. After daybreak they saw aircraft, including a hulking 747 supertanker, douse the Oakmont fire with retardant.
The forecast Saturday night called for winds up to 25 mph out of the north, better conditions than Friday, but not ideal for corralling the fires.
The Tubbs fire, which now stretches across three counties, vexed firefighters at its eastern flank on Mount St. Helena. About 30 crew members on Saturday night drove to the top of the 4,341-foot mountain and started a hike down the southwest side, working the fireâ€™s edge as it pushed further into southern Lake County.
Lit by headlamps and carrying chainsaws, the firefighters cut away thick brush in the flamesâ€™ path to remove dry, thick fuel.
By dawn, the hope was for calm weather so planes and helicopters could move in and â€œbeat up on it,â€� said Greg Bertelli, a Cal Fire division chief helping run the north end of the fire.
An advisory evacuation remained in place for fire-scarred Middletown on the other side of the hill. Advisory and mandatory evacuations orders also remained for areas in and around Calistoga.
Sonoma Countyâ€™s Coronerâ€™s Office Saturday reported two more bodies found in the wake of the fires, in Mark West Springs and Fountaingrove.
Family members were being notified and authorities expected to identify more of the deceased today.
Two bodies also were found Saturday in Napa County. Sally Lewis, 90, and her caretaker, Teresa Santos, 50, were found in the remains of a home in the 1900 block of Soda Canyon Road.
The rising death toll and unprecedented damage, particularly in Santa Rosa, left visiting dignitaries aghast.
â€œThe devastation. The horror. The displacement. Itâ€™s truly something that none of us will ever forget,â€� Gov. Jerry Brown said at a community meeting at Santa Rosa High School.
U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris vowed to secure federal resources to support the area through what they predicted would be a long recovery.
â€œItâ€™s going to be overwhelming. Itâ€™s already overwhelming,â€� Harris said.
They encouraged people to seek assistance, particularly at the newly established assistance center set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in downtown Santa Rosa. The service hub, open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 427 Mendocino Ave., drew hundreds of fire evacuees on Saturday.
â€œI lost everything,â€� said Felis Domingues, a 70-year-old Fountaingrove resident who was at the front of the line. â€œAll my personal documents are gone.â€�
Staff Writer Nick Rahaim contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or email@example.com.