Firefighter Alex DeLeon of South Lake Tahoe bundles up against the cold wind as a ridge between Sonoma and Lake County burns. The flames prompted a flurry of false reports Tuesday night on the Santa Rosa plain. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

From fierce winds to flames: How the Kincade fire made Sonoma County history

On Oct. 23, a wildfire ignited at The Geysers, the world's largest geothermal energy field. During the weeklong blaze, tens of thousands of residents were evacuated, and the inferno came perilously close to densely populated Windsor, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa.

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Tracking the Kincade firefight, day by day in Sonoma County:

Wednesday, Oct. 23:

The largest wildfire in Sonoma County history ignited and flames were reported minutes before 9:30 p.m. near John Kincade Road and Burned Mountain Road at The Geysers, the world’s largest geothermal energy field. Propelled by strong northwest winds up to 60 mph on the Sonoma County and Lake County line, the fire quickly spread to 1,000 acres.

Fire cameras around the North Bay from ALERTWildfire show just how quickly the Kincade fire grew in the early morning hours:

Because of the fierce winds, Cal Fire called off air attacks on the blaze due to severe turbulence. Wind gusts whipped burning tree limbs and other flaming debris through the air, with embers flying hundreds of feet into the sky, said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville, who is also Geyserville’s fire chief. The fast-moving blaze, which catapulted the burning embers as far as a mile ahead of the inferno, quickly prompted officials to order a few hundred people east of Geyserville to evacuate the area.

In only three hours, the fire grew to about 5,000 acres. About six hours into the firefight it covered 10,000 acres. Thick smoke filled the air along Hawkeye Ranch Road and sent people fleeing, some with horses in trailers. At this point, there was no immediate threat to the town of Windsor, according to Sonoma County Fire District. But an evacuation center opened at Windsor High School.

About 2:30 p.m., PG&E started pulling the plug to about 178,000 customers in 15 counties, including 28,000 in Sonoma County, as part of a planned power shut-off to try to prevent its equipment from sparking fires. Areas near where the fire started were included in the blackout.

An evacuation notice for about 1,700 people was issued for Geyserville and northern Healdsburg. Geyserville’s nearly 900 residents and the nearby River Rock Casino were ordered to evacuate immediately, and all roads east of Highway 101 in the Geyserville area were closed.

The fire, driven by overnight wind gusts the National Weather Service recorded at up to 76 mph, spread at the rapid pace of about 1,000 acres per hour.

Thursday, Oct. 24:

With a dip in wind speeds but temperatures remaining in the high 90s, air tankers and helicopters joined the firefight just after dawn. With the evacuation in place, the focus of fire crews on the ground switched from saving lives to building a fire line and protecting Geyserville. But under still-strong wind conditions, the inferno began its march downhill on one of the steepest flanks of the Mayacamas Mountains toward Geyserville and into Alexander Valley, a patchwork of vineyards that produce world-class wines. Several of the first 49 structures destroyed, including 21 homes, were on Geysers Road, Pine Flat Road, Red Winery Road, north of Geyserville along Highway 128. Among them are numerous buildings on the Jackson Family estate, owners of the ninth-largest wine company in America. The Robert Young Estate Winery Vineyard and Garden Creek Vineyards also suffered damage to their properties early in the fire.

By 7 p.m., the fire chewed through 16,000 acres and drew 1,300 firefighters from numerous agencies, Cal Fire reported. With the 17,357-acre Pocket fire from October 2017 still fresh in area residents’ minds, fears that the Kincade blaze could top it and become the largest fire in the Geysers area became likely. “The Geysers area has the highest fire behavior in Sonoma County,” Geyserville Fire Capt. Joe Stewart said.

Scenes from the first 24 hours of the fire:

PG&E disclosed to the California Public Utilities Commission that a piece of its transmission tower carrying a 230-kilovolt line broke off in the mountainous area near the ignition point of the Kincade fire. The utility said it did not turn off transmission lines in the area because weather conditions did not reach its threshold for shutdown.

Progress of the Kincade fire:

Friday, Oct. 25:

Fire crews did what Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville called a “pretty good job” limiting the fire’s growth into Friday morning. Still, it torched almost 6,000 acres overnight to build to about 22,000 acres and overtake the total acreage torched during the 2017 Pocket fire. It was now threatening another 735 structures, but Cal Fire still thought it would contain the unwieldy wildfire by Oct. 31. By evening, inmate firefighters, the California Conservation Corps, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management and the California National Guard mobilized in what soon became a battle between Kincade and firefighters for control of north Sonoma County.

Live reporting from Alexander Valley, the air is thick of smoke:

Into the evening, the fire continued its southeast charge toward Knights Valley, Windsor and Healdsburg through steep, remote terrain that made it difficult for crews to gain access and limit its spread. Concerns escalated because of forecasts calling for the worst fire conditions in the North Bay since the October 2017 firestorm that killed 40 people and destroyed nearly 6,200 homes. Meanwhile, PG&E planned its third power outage of the month for about 96,000 Sonoma County homes and businesses, and a total of 970,000 customers in 36 counties starting Saturday evening. The National Weather Service predicted winds up to 80 mph for the highest elevations of the North Bay hills. During the deadly Tubbs fire that two years ago burned a wide swath through central Sonoma County killed 22 people and destroying 5,300 homes, winds reached 68 mph.

In one dangerous incident near Pine Flat Road, a firefighter was forced to deploy a portable emergency shelter to shield himself and two residents attempting to flee from Kincade's flames. Each sustained minor injuries, Cal Fire said. It was one of four firefighter injuries that would occur over the first week of the firefight, though Cal Fire did not report any fatalities.

That night, the fire’s expanse burned almost 24,000 acres and there was only 5% containment. Evacuation orders were issued to 12,000 residents of Healdsburg and east toward Knights Valley. Before midnight, the mandatory orders extended to: Ida Clayton Road north to Highland Ranch Road at Campbell Road; east of Highway 101 between Asti Road and Alexander Valley Road to the Mendocino and Lake County lines, including Lakeview Road; and south along the Lake and Sonoma County lines to Ida Clayton Road.

Saturday, Oct. 26:

By morning, a firefighting force of almost 2,100, and 179 fire engines, worked through the night to double containment of the blaze to 10%. Still, the fire grew by more than 1,750 acres to about 25,500 acres and now threatened 23,500 structures. A few hours later, about 84,000 residents — about a fifth of Sonoma County’s population — were ordered to leave their homes as mandatory evacuations spread to Highway 128 north of Knights Valley to the Napa County line, and along Highway 101 to all of Healdsburg and Windsor, and areas east of Chalk Hill Road.

The Healdsburg Community Center, which had been an early evacuation shelter, was evacuated at noon. The tens of thousands of residents represented the largest evacuation effort in county history. Authorities told people to pack their belongings and leave by 4 p.m. The Dry Creek Valley, the Larkfield and Mark West areas, as well as all of west county — including about 30,000 residents across areas such as Guerneville, Forestville, Occidental, Sebastopol and Bodega Bay — also were placed on evacuation warning. “You cannot fight this. If you’re under an evacuation order, you must leave,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.

Bracing for historic winds overnight through Monday morning, reinforcements were called to the Kincade frontlines, now totaling 2,830 firefighters and more than 250 fire engines. The fire was mostly held in check during the day — what many were calling the calm before the storm — with the amount of charred land at just shy of 26,000 acres, and containment ticked up to 11%. However, structures destroyed increased to 79 with another 14 damaged.

Air tankers prepainted unburned areas with fire retardant to prepare for the worst as 8 p.m. approached, when a National Weather Service red flag warning alerting residents to critical fire weather that included northeast winds forecasted to be 25 mph to 40 mph. Warm temperatures and dry fuels from low humidity levels was set to kick in. “We’re planning for the worst, but obviously it’s Mother Nature who’s in control at this point,” said Cal Fire Division Chief Jonathan Cox, recalling conditions from the October 2017 firestorm. “I think it could be as bad, if not worse.” The estimate for full Kincade containment was pushed back to Nov. 7.

Live reporting from Healdsburg evacuation:

At 8:30 p.m., the evacuation warning expanded to the city of Santa Rosa — the county’s largest city — for areas north of Guerneville Road, east of the city’s western limits, and all areas within of the city north of Highway 12 and west of Highway 101. The prospective evacuation encompassed 40,000 people, according to city officials. Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital began to move its 97 patients, including 13 in the emergency room and 10 in the intensive-care unit. More than 32,000 Santa Rosans west of Highway 101, between Guerneville Road and Highway 12 also prepared for the need to leave.

Sunday, Oct. 27:

Overnight gusts were even greater than predicted, reaching up to 90 mph -- with a wind gust of 102 mph, according to the National Weather Service in Monterey. Firefighters said the dangerous conditions included some of the strongest winds ever experienced in Sonoma County as the fire devoured another 4,000 acres to reach 30,000 acres. Firefighters lost momentum as containment declined to 10%. Firefighters now numbering about 3,100 anticipated losing more of their foothold as the fire continued its southeastern path toward Chalk Hill Road and Highway 128, and south down the Chalk Hill corridor. Crews did their best to stick with spot fires that erupted all around them and behind their initial defenses in the extreme and erratic winds. Kincade now was positioned to penetrate Windsor, a densely populated suburb a few miles north of Santa Rosa.

Live reporting from Arata Lane in Windsor where the fire is approaching:

In its wake, the prior evacuation warning in Santa Rosa was upgraded to mandatory, and residents further south, from Guerneville Road to Highway 12, were told to leave. evacuations. City officials estimated 73,000 Santa Rosa residents — more than 40% of the city’s population — left in the pre-dawn hours onto the major roads south, clogging Highway 101 for several hours. Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center closed and relocated about 110 patients.

The largest evacuation in Sonoma County history now swelled to about 190,000 residents, or more than a third of its overall population. Thousands of people went to 16 American Red Cross shelters across the North Bay and into San Francisco. Many parked cars with their pets at crowded sites and slept in their vehicles for several days. One Santa Rosa resident at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds hitchhiked without access to a car. Public transit, including city and county bus services and SMART commuter trains, stopped. Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport also grounded commercial airlines.

Live reporting aboard helicopter Henry 1 with Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick:

That afternoon, in an indicator of the shocking fire figures to come later in the day, an evacuation warning was issued for the city of Calistoga in Napa County north of Diamond Mountain Road to Dunaweal Lane, as well as anyone east of the Sonoma-Napa County line, south of the Lake-Napa County line and west of Pickett Road. “The thing that people need to know is that the threat is real,” Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said. “That doesn’t invoke fear; it invokes vigilance.”

By evening, Cal Fire revealed winds enabled the conflagration to explode by more than 24,000 acres in just 12 hours, The inferno now burned across 54,300 acres, or nearly 84 square miles. Worse, containment dropped to 5%, and yet another wave of firefighters were added bringing the total to 3,441. They were on their heels and in need of relief from the winds. The losses also increased during the course of the day’s fight, reaching 94 structures destroyed, 17 others damaged, and almost 80,000 more threatened, Cal Fire said.

After Sonoma County’s first-ever “all-call” to bring every available fire resource to the fiery battle, there were hard-earned saves. They included historic ranch and vineyard properties in Alexander Valley, areas along Chalk Hill Road and the eastern banks of the Russian River near Healdsburg. The northern edge of a populated subdivision in Windsor abutting Foothill Regional Park got high priority, in part to prevent the fire from gaining necessary force to potentially burn all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Windsor survived with just two homes lost and several other properties damaged. “No matter how tired we were, no matter how overwhelmed we were, we were going to throw everything we had at it,” Sonoma County Fire Battalion Chief and Fire Marshal Cyndi Foreman said.

Still, the fire consumed historic Soda Rock Winery and homes on Chalk Hill Road, before the fire took a run south at the Shiloh Estates on Windsor’s eastern outskirts. The 2017 fire rebuilding communities of Larkfield-Wikiup and Mark West Springs the north Santa Rosa area, which lost more than 1,700 homes two years ago, were now real targets of the Kincade fire. Tired crews realized yet another overnight battle was ahead. “It’s amazing what adrenaline will do when you’re exhausted,” Foreman said. “All of us are hell-bent on trying to prevent this from becoming the disaster that was the Tubbs fire.”

Monday, Oct. 28:

Overnight, the fire ripped through yet another 12,000 acres. The surge to 66,200 acres since Wednesday night overtook the size of the 2017 Nuns fire, which burned 56,556 acres, to become the largest in Sonoma County history. About 80,000 structures still were under threat, 88% of which were homes. A firefighting force still gaining in size increased to 4,150. They were encouraged by the red-flag fire weather warning expiring at 11 a.m. The fire came within a mile of Mark West Springs canyon, including property at Safari West, but no further.

The large-scale firefighting force won that front, keeping flames from the northern edges of Shiloh Regional Park and nearby neighborhoods after it jumped roads and firebreaks down Faught Road toward Wikiup. And other victories started to stack up. By midday, and with the fire turning north toward northeast parts of Lake County, the county sheriff’s office decided to let about 30,000 residents of west Sonoma County go back to their homes. Many remained without power as well as heat after PG&E also shut off gas to thousands of residents as a precaution to portions of the north and west county on Sunday.

By the evening, an additional 8,000 acres charred, the fire covered 74,324 acres — more than twice that of the 36,807-acre Tubbs fire in 2017. While containment increased to 15%, the number of structures destroyed rose to 123, including 57 homes. An additional 20 structures were damaged, including 12 homes, as the brunt of the major windstorm subsided.

Another windstorm was forecasted to begin overnight into Wednesday as the third red-flag fire weather warning was set to take effect Tuesday morning. As PG&E continued work to restore power to an unprecedented number of people in the most recent outage, the utility was preparing for its next preemptive electricity shut-off. Now, Kincade threatened 90,015 structures — 89% of them homes. The firefighting force numbered 4,373, including 468 fire engines, 42 water tenders and 66 bulldozers. Yet again, fire crews knew the job wasn’t over. “I would say we’re not out of the woods yet,” Cal Fire Division Chief Jonathan Cox said.

Tuesday, Oct. 29:

For the first time in days, the fire weakened, consuming about 1,000 more acres to reach 75,415 acres. Just one more structure was destroyed and three more homes damaged. More than 4,500 firefighters prepped for an all-out war to block the flames from entering Santa Rosa.

Not long after the sheriff’s office allowed residents of the northern portion of the Dry Creek Valley to head home, PG&E began its fourth planned power shut-off in three weeks. The blackout was set to include just under 600,000 customers across 29 counties — nearly 87,000 in Sonoma County, or an estimated 260,000 people. The North Bay’s 300,000 customers left in the dark yet again represented half of the total, as offshore wind gusts were expected to reach up to 55 mph in the hills overnight into Wednesday afternoon.

That evening, the fire grew slowly, gobbling up just 700 acres to reach 76,138 acres. In that confined consumption, however, another 65 structures were destroyed for a total of 189 — 86 were homes. The number damaged also increased, from 16 to 39, including 26 homes. Containment stood at 15%.

More than 5,000 firefighters, including many from Sonoma County who volunteered for the critical fight to prevent the second-coming of the October 2017 firestorm, entrenched themselves on the northern edge of Santa Rosa. For many, including 90 local firefighters, defending neighborhoods still rising from the ashes of the disaster two years prior, it was personal. Through tears, Sonoma County Fire Battalion Chief Mark Dunn called the looming firefight a chance “to make amends for the Tubbs,” in what some saw as a battle of maintaining the region’s colossal recovery. “That’s what this is — a second time around,” Dunn said.

Wednesday, Oct. 30:

In the nearly weeklong fiery battle, finally luck was on the side of firefighters. Winds showed up weaker than anticipated, though still topped out at 64 mph in the North Bay hills, according to the National Weather Service. But gusts in the valleys didn’t exceed 25 mph, and the fire grew by the smallest amount in a 12-hour period, at under 700 acres since igniting. Crews cited favorable weather conditions in their ability to make good progress on suppression efforts. The Kincade fire’s 76,825-acre footprint, or about 120 square miles, still was staggering. Overall, 206 structures, including 94 homes, were destroyed, with another 27 homes and 13 more structures damaged. Fire crews totaling almost 600 fire engines, 48 water tenders, 27 helicopters plus air tankers, 93 hand crews and 67 dozers, finally gained the upper hand as containment doubled to 30%. “We dodged a bullet,” said Sonoma County Fire Captain Sid Andreis, a lifelong Larkfield resident. “It was a good night.”

The gains and expiration of the third and final red-flag fire weather warning at 4 p.m. inspired Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick to downgrade most mandatory evacuations to warnings or lift them altogether. More than 140,000 county residents went home. That included celebratory and tear-filled homecomings in Windsor and Healdsburg, parts of Santa Rosa, including Rincon Valley, and just outside city limits in Larkfield and Fulton. About 6,000 people remained under mandatory evacuation in the northeastern reaches of Sonoma County on the Sonoma-Lake County line. “We believe most of the threat is now in our rear-view mirror,” Essick said.

By nightfall, the firefighting force increased to its largest — 5,245 — to help hold the Kincade inferno to 76,825 acres. It was the first day of the weeklong blaze that the fire didn’t expand in acreage. Containment increased to 45%, though Cal Fire’s counts of the destruction jumped to 266 structures destroyed, including 133 homes, and 32 other residences damaged.

Thursday, Oct. 31:

On Thursday night, the firefighting force of 5,000 strong increased Kincade’s containment to 65% and the fire’s coverage reached 77,758 acres. The number of homes destroyed totaled 165 amid 349 structures burned. At 9 p.m., PG&E said it restored electricity to all but 2,000 customers in its latest planned blackout. About 1,200 of them were in areas closest to the Kincade fire, and the other 800 were in locations where wind-related damage to PG&E infrastructure required repairs Friday.

Friday, Nov. 1:

On Friday, Sonoma County authorities delivered the news everyone wanted to hear. With the Kincade inferno 70% contained, Cal Fire expects to fully contain the blaze by Nov. 7. The fire destruction countywide stands at 360 structures destroyed, including 174 homes.

Kincade fire videos:

Editor's note: This article was updated to correct the number of patients evacuated from Kaiser Permanente Medical Center.

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