Firefighters were bracing for another round of Diablo winds in Northern California this week, days after monster winds topping 90 mph ripped through the area, making it difficult for officials to make any progress on the growing Kincade fire.
Santa Rosa residents were forced to evacuate in darkness early Sunday amid Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power outages, using flashlights and cellphones as light sources. The number of evacuated residences had increased to 185,000, said Jay Tracy, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection.
The fire grew almost 12,000 acres overnight into Monday and remained at just 5% containment as firefighters entered their fifth day battling the blaze. At least 96 structures have been destroyed, including 40 homes.
One firefighter suffered a minor burn and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, officials said Monday. Another who was burned more seriously was airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. No deaths have been reported in the massive blaze.
Winds are expected to pick up again Tuesday and reach their peak in the evening, with gusts up to 70 mph, said Spencer Tangen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Fortunately, this should be the last bump in the road for firefighters — at least for this week, Tangen said. Forecasters haven’t detected any more strong wind events into early next week.
Overnight, the 66,231-acre fire swept south of the town of Windsor on Shiloh Ridge, where homes were burned, although it was unclear how many structures were lost. Many more remain threatened, according to Cal Fire officials.
Firetrucks lined the entrance to the Mayacama Golf Course, where the fire had advanced Sunday night after passing over Shiloh Ridge Road. Through a thick blanket of smoke, firefighters worked to build a perimeter. With narrow roads lining hilly terrain pocked by homes and expansive vineyards, it was no easy task. At a morning briefing in Santa Rosa, firefighters were warned to watch for fallen trees on the road and downed power lines.
“Watch your speeds,” Cal Fire officials told their crews.
“We’ve been chasing this fire for the last four days. We finally got the break in the weather,” Ben Nichols, a Cal Fire division chief, said during the briefing. “We have to get out there and get this thing buttoned up and put it to bed.”
Firefighters aimed to take advantage of calm winds on Monday. Crews are being deployed to protect homes while those on the fire’s perimeter work aggressively to add containment lines, specifically in the northeastern and northwestern areas of the fire. Aircraft plan to drop water and fire retardant on the difficult-to-access terrain.
Overtime pay for firefighters has surged by 65% in the past decade, further evidence of the toll an unprecedented string of wildfires has taken on California.
Pacific Gas & Electric on Friday announced a $13.5 billion settlement for a string of recent fires in Northern California that killed dozens, and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.
State Insurance head Ricardo Lara announced a one-year moratorium banning insurers from not renewing policies for homeowners in fire-ravaged areas.
The fire has been as much a challenge for residents as it has for firefighters. Many are still recovering from the Tubbs fire in 2017 that devastated Santa Rosa, killing 22 people and destroying homes.
Those who lost their houses are struggling with difficult memories while navigating evacuations in darkness during what has been PG&E’s largest power shut-off yet.
To make matters worse, nighttime temperatures are beginning to drop in the North Bay valleys, with temperatures decreasing to the low 30s in Santa Rosa, Tangen said.
“You don’t really think about the cold [during fires] ... but that’s going to be really hard on people” who don’t have power, Tangen said.
Monday’s weather allowed PG&E to begin inspecting the lines affected by power outages. PG&E said 6,000 people were conducting inspections on equipment, working as quickly as possible to make repairs where needed and restore power.
But more outages are possible with Tuesday’s winds, the utility said.
In Santa Rosa, Honora Clemens, 93, was up monitoring the fire on television Sunday when she saw lights go out on a block of nearby homes. The smoke was heavy, but she hadn’t seen any embers as she did when she fled the Tubbs fire. She hadn’t been ordered to leave yet.
Then her television screen froze. Suddenly she felt cut off and panicked. How would she know if there were an order to evacuate?
She and her daughter packed up and left, driving to the fairgrounds, where they knew the routine: They had spent 10 smoky days there in 2017.
Not everyone left, though.
Mike Birleffi, of Windsor, chose to ignore Sunday night’s mandatory evacuation orders out of a commitment to “home protection, ignorance and stubbornness,” he said, standing barefoot in jeans and a denim vest on the edge of his driveway Monday morning.
There was also, as he put it, “the overinflated sense of self worth” that had kept him on his three acres of land, where the 63-year-old self-employed carpenter has lived for 33 years.
He stood next to a hand-painted sign that read, “Thank you first responders,” in red paint.
“I made it during the last fire. I’m a recycling buff,” he said.
He had gotten a few hours of sleep Sunday night, but not much. He spent the evening in his driveway, looking north as the flames flared up in the hills.
“It looked kind of like some kind of biblical prophesy,“ he said.
Despite law enforcement’s insistence that residents stay out of evacuation zones, Windsor resident Gil Laroucherie drove back to his ranch in the pre-dawn hours Monday.
Laroucherie, 78, had evacuated his 53 horses to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Sunday and spent the night parked near them, barely sleeping in his white Ford F-150 pickup truck. But as morning approached, he felt the need to check on his ranch.
“I knew pretty well what I was gonna see, but the realism of seeing it, it takes you back a bit,” he said of his drive from the fairgrounds back toward the flames. The streets were empty, except for several parked emergency vehicles.
He was relieved when he finally reached his ranch and found it unharmed. He stopped for gas-station coffee at one of the lone holdouts still serving before heading back to his horses.
As firefighters fought against winds Sunday morning, three new fires broke out in eastern Contra Costa County — two in Oakley along the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and one in a small, rural neighborhood of Clayton east of Mt. Diablo.
Then, mid-morning, a fire erupted in Vallejo and sent embers across the Carquinez Strait to light a new blaze in Contra Costa County, in the hills around Crockett.
Two PG&E incident reports submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission and posted online Monday indicated the utility detected problems with its equipment around the same time two of the Contra Costa County fires started.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has been sharply critical of the CPUC and PG&E, whose “greed” and “mismanagement” he says have contributed to the fires and shut-offs across the state.
Newsom has declared a statewide emergency and announced last week the state secured $75 million for areas affected by power shut-offs. Half would be allocated to local governments, with the cities of Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego and Oakland receiving $500,000 each.
The money can be used to purchase equipment for planned shut-offs, such as generators, fuel storage and other backup energy sources.
A team with the Federal Emergency Management Agency is embedded in the California Office of Emergency Services. More than 100 firetrucks have come from states outside of California, according to officials with the state department of emergency services.
Newsom said the state has offered resources to PG&E to enable quicker line inspections and power restoration in Northern California.
Two arrests have been made amid the Northern California blazes. A man was arrested Sunday on suspicion of attempting to enter a burned area with criminal intentions, according to Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick. A woman was arrested on suspicion of arson after authorities said she set fire to a home. Essick said that crime was an isolated incident targeting an individual and not related to the bigger fires.
Sheriff’s officials said repopulation efforts in Sonoma County would begin soon, with the most recent evacuees being given the OK to return home first.