Healdsburg is a ghost town awaiting the Diablo winds and Kincade fire
It was 4 p.m. and the famed wine country city of Healdsburg was virtually empty.
It was four hours before the Diablo winds might begin in earnest, according to weather forecasts, blowing embers of the Kincade fire perhaps for miles. Concerns that the fire could get down to Healdsburg and beyond prompted officials on Saturday to evacuate 90,000 people from the city to the Pacific Coast.
When the 4 p.m. bells rang at the local church, there was a little more than a breeze rustling the oaks and evergreens in the town square.
Almost all of Healdsburg’s 11,000 residents had heeded the mandatory evacuation order that began at 10 a.m., piling into cars that turned Highway 101 south toward San Francisco into a bottleneck of traffic.
City Councilman Shaun McCaffery said he was in a local hardware store when the word came down that everyone had to go.
He expected the news, but when dozens of cellphones beeped at the same time, people were alarmed, he said. But with memories of the Tubbs fire just two years before, most were willing to leave.
Pacific Gas & Electric has raised its estimate of the number of people in Northern California who will have to go without electricity Saturday night in the hope of preventing high winds from downing live power lines and sparking fires.
“There was consternation earlier today. You are going to get some grumblers,“ said Rhea Borja, spokeswoman for the city of Healdsburg.
But Borja said the city has been working for some time to prepare people for the possibility of a massive departure. Just last weekend, a practice drill was held to get people ready.
Kevin Burke, chief of the Healdsburg Police Department, said his officers went door to door all day to confirm that most people were gone.
The extreme Diablo winds that threaten to spread the Kincade fire this weekend could bring one of the most dangerous periods of fire weather in a generation.
With power scheduled to be cut off within an hour, Burke and his team were patrolling for stragglers. But not everyone was willing to go. McCaffery said he was staying.
He had been 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, where the kids were probably in the pool, he said. But he was staying behind in the hopes of protecting his home and their three cats, Butter, Percy and Inka, in case the worst were to happen and the winds brought embers into town.
On a side street not far from the town center in Healdsburg, Tom, who declined to give his last name, was in his garage with his son-in-law Kevin drilling holes in particleboard.
“My theory, and I think it’s pretty well proven: I believe all the homes lost in the Tubbs fire were from attic vents,” he said.
A civil engineer, Tom said that he believed sparks flying in the vents had burned the homes from inside. The duo planned on sealing the 35 vents in his home, which is surrounded by a thick shading of trees. Then they would leave town.
“If the police don’t kick me out first,“ Tom said.
A few doors down, Brian White was charging some final lanterns and listening to the scanner. He said he did not intend to leave his house, which has the double fire buffer of a cemetery behind it and a golf course nearby.
But he sent his two kids and his wife across town to stay with his parents, where they would be easily able to get out of town if need be, and his Suzuki 650 motorcycle was ready in the garage if everything went wrong.
White said “it would take a hellacious wind storm” to bring the fire into town, and he didn’t think it would happen. He was more worried about leaving his home unattended in the vacant city.
“It’s a house thing, it’s an ownership thing,” he said.
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