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Kincade fire stalks California wine country; nearly 200,000 evacuated

  • Author: Colleen Shalby, Melody Gutierrez, Rong-Gong Lin II and Dakota Smith, Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: October 27, 2019
  • Published October 27, 2019

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Fueled by powerful winds, the massive Kincade fire continued its southwest march across Sonoma County, burning winery properties and threatening to jump Highway 101 as more than 2 million people across the region were thrown into darkness because of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. blackouts.

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency Sunday as wildfires spread throughout California, burning about 54,000 acres by Sunday night and forcing evacuations of more than 180,000 people.

The Kincade fire has destroyed 94 structures, damaged 17 and threatens an additional 80,000, officials said at a 6:30 p.m. briefing. The blaze is only 5% contained.

"We are deploying every resource available, and are coordinating with numerous agencies," Newsom said earlier. "It is critical that people in evacuation zones heed the warnings from officials and first responders."

The Northern California fire crisis had prompted a massive mandatory evacuation footprint that stretched from the vineyards of Sonoma County to the coastal community of Bodega Bay, encompassing cities including Calistoga, Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa.

As night approached, the biggest concern is that the fire will cross Highway 101 and ignite an area that hasn’t burned since the 1940s, fire officials said. Officials worry the blaze will spread into agricultural land mostly used to grow grapes and reach a dense mountainous region of old-growth redwood forest.

More than 3,000 local, state and federal firefighting personnel were battling the Kincade fire on an extreme wind day that saw one gust of 96 mph and another of 85 mph in the fire zone. Winds between 25 and 30 mph were predicted through the night and into Monday morning with humidity at only about 9%.

Winds are expected to die down Monday afternoon, allowing for a more aggressive aerial attack.

"The big fear now is Windsor, Healdsburg and holding the line on Highway 101 so we keep it on the east side," said Newsom, who toured the area and visited hospitals and evacuation centers.

Structures in the famed wine country burned, including some owned by wineries in the Alexander Valley. The Soda Rock winery along State Highway 128 near Healdsburg was consumed early Sunday morning.

PG&E customers struggling without electrical power could remain in the dark until Wednesday, utility spokeswoman Mayra Tostado said Sunday. The next outages will hit customers in Kern, Fresno and Madera counties, she said.

The blackouts started at 5 p.m. Saturday and will not end until the company determines the outage areas are free from dangerous wind conditions, she said.

Once the wind subsides, PG&E will send out thousands of electrical workers to visually inspect all the lines for possible damage. The utility warned that it could take up to 48 hours after the winds subside to complete the inspections and reenergize the lines.

A hillside smolders as firefighters light backfires to slow the spread of the Kincade Fire in unincorporated Sonoma County, Calif., near Geyservillle on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. About 90,000 residents were ordered to evacuate as extreme winds predicted for Sunday morning threaten to rapidly spread the blaze. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Flames from a backfire, lit by firefighters to slow the spread of the Kincade Fire, burn a hillside in unincorporated Sonoma County, Calif., near Geyservillle, on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. The blaze forced evacuation orders and warnings for nearly all of Sonoma County stretching to the coast, with forecasts of strong winds prompting officials to start cutting electricity for millions of people in an effort to prevent more fires. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Ryan Yeager, 39, used a charging station in Orinda to power medical equipment for his daughter, Violet, who uses a wheelchair. The city has been without power since Saturday night. He said she suffers from a disorder that requires a breathing device and a tube for nutrition.

Yeager ordered a $2,600 battery that was supposed to provide a few days of power, but it had not yet arrived. "I don't mind this as long as we are not having to evacuate," he said.

Evacuation centers were filled with fire refugees, many who left their homes in predawn darkness after sleepless hours listening to their phones ping with evacuation updates.

Rows of cots lined a giant room at Petaluma Veterans Memorial Hall. Evacuees were served a hot homestyle breakfast of pancakes, eggs and sausage links in an adjacent room.

Some watched the local news, as others filed in and out of the hallways, unsure of their next move. "I'm trying to figure out what's going on," one woman was overheard saying into the phone.

Windsor resident Eva Mendoza had packed only a few items, including a toothbrush and a change of clothes, before finding a place that would accept her cocker spaniel Natalia.

It was her 52nd birthday and she had plans to attend a concert in San Francisco. But then the evacuation orders came.

In her rush to vacate, she left pictures and mementos behind. "I didn't have time to wrap anything else," she said through tears.

Kayla Williams, 26, and her family ate lunch at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Auditorium after leaving their Larkfield home.

They were told there is no room at the evacuation center, so the Williamses didn't know where they wouldl go for the night. Williams kept her voice low, describing how her 4-year-old son asked her if they're going to live in a car permanently. Both her sons have cried, begging to return home.

"I don't know what to tell them. It's hard when us as adults are panicking and are trying to stay calm for them," Williams said.

Earlier in the day, firefighters scrambled in the darkness to quell multiple small blazes sparked by embers far from the fire's main line in the foothills.

In Santa Rosa, residents of neighborhoods that burned in the Tubbs fire in 2017 once again left their homes in darkness and uncertainty.

Karen Kristensen was packing up two cars for her 88-year-old mother, Beverly, and herself in Coffey Park.

They were caught in the Tubbs fire, which burned Coffey Park to the ground. Homes here are still under construction or brand new. Kristensen just moved back in August.

In 2017 they escaped with some laundry and a few pictures. “I wore shorts for two weeks,” she said. “Everything was dust. There was nothing left.”

"I wore shorts for two weeks," she said. "Everything was dust. There was nothing left."

Just north of Santa Rosa, Sharon Bowne was visibly anxious as she loaded her sport utility vehicle 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."

Firefighters were confronted with smaller blazes throughout the day.

In the East Bay flames erupted near the Highway 24-Interstate 680 interchange in Contra Costa County. Authorities ordered immediate evacuations in parts of Lafayette.

Another fast-moving fire erupted near the Carquinez Bridge, which connects Contra Costa County to Vallejo in Northern California, but firefighters gained the upper hand by the afternoon.

The cause of the Kincade fire is still under investigation, but some suspicion is already turning to transmission lines owned by PG&E. The utility said Thursday that one of its transmission lines experienced problems Wednesday night around the area where the fire broke out.

In Orinda, a city northeast of Oakland, the air smelled strongly of smoke. Strong winds left tree branches and leaves scattered across the streets.

n a mandatory report sent to the California Public Utilities Commission, the company said one of its workers noticed that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, had taped off the area. PG&E said Cal Fire also pointed out a "broken jumper on the same tower."

Times staff writers Maura Dolan and Anita Chabria contributed to this report.