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Kincade fire scorches 66,000 acres in Sonoma County

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With milder weather on their side, more than 4,300 firefighters working with hand tools on the ground and backed by air support from the sky made progress on the nearly week-old Kincade fire Monday, but their optimism was tempered by the expectation of another onslaught by Mother Nature.

“You might call it the calm before the storm,” Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox said Monday night, referring to the day’s “window of opportunity” to build containment lines around a wildfire that grew to more than 74,000 acres in north Sonoma County.

“I would say we’re not out of the woods yet,” he added.

The day’s best news was Sheriff Mark Essick’s decision to allow about 30,000 west county residents back into their homes in a broad region from the coast to Sebastopol and along the lower Russian River.

“We feel very comfortable allowing people back into this area,” Essick said, urging residents to “stay vigilant” as they return to their homes over roads that may be littered with debris from the weekend windstorm that included gusts up to 102 mph.

Essick said the west county evacuation — questioned by some residents as an overreach — was a “gut-wrenching decision,” prompted by the warning from Cal Fire experts that the fire could burn all the way to the ocean.

By Monday, with the fire still rooted on the east side of Highway 101, Essick said the risk was lower but “not totally gone.”

Containment of the wildfire reached 15%, a threefold increase from Sunday night, but was threatening more than 90,000 structures, up from 80,000 on Sunday.

Cox attributed the progress to 66 dozers cutting a bare earth belt around the blaze, firefighters scraping the soil with hand tools and dousing hot spots, with 10 helicopters dropping water and air tankers releasing bright pink loads of fire retardant.

“A well-orchestrated effort on the ground and in the sky,” he said.

The fire grew by about 20,000 acres from Monday night, but much of that was in pockets within the fire perimeter, another Cal Fire spokesman said.

Ryan Walbrun, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the conditions turned “somewhat more favorable” Monday, but a red flag warning — signifying dry, windy, warm weather that causes fires to spread rapidly — was due to start at 8 a.m. Tuesday and last through Wednesday afternoon. Strong offshore winds are expected to gust up to 35 mph in the North Bay valleys and 65 mph in the hills.

“It is distinctly lighter than the weekend event,” Cox said, “but I would not downplay it at all.”

One firefighter sustained burns Sunday and was airlifted to a hospital, listed in stable condition, he said.

PG&E restored power Monday to nearly 400,000 of the 970,000 customers across California who were affected by a massive shut-off over the weekend. But another blackout is coming: the San Francisco-based utility said it would implement another outage Tuesday morning that would impact 240,000 to 605,000 customers across the state.

County officials expected about 86,000 customers would lose power in Tuesday’s shut-off, only slightly fewer than the 93,000 local customers who lost power Saturday.

The Kincade fire has destroyed 123 structures, including 57 homes, but harmed no civilians. The October 2017 wildfires killed 24 people and razed more than 5,300 homes in Sonoma County.

Overnight, the fire moved into territory scarred by the Tubbs fire along the Mark West corridor two years ago. It burned into Safari West property and the northern half of Pepperwood Preserve — both areas badly damaged in 2017. A Safari West spokesman Monday said the fire had not caused any serious issues on the property and Pepperwood reported no damage to its new buildings.

The fire made a hard run toward Windsor on Sunday afternoon, when it burned a section of popular Foothill Regional Park, and closed in on homes along Lockwood Drive. While firefighters stopped the fire at that subdivision, it spread into Shiloh Estates and burned at least two homes. Firefighters were still were assessing losses Monday.

There was less concern Monday about three communities to the north — Healdsburg, Geyserville and Cloverdale — as the wind wasn’t pushing the fire toward those communities.

But new concerns arose, including fire moving above Knights Valley that jumped Highway 128 and rural Ida Clayton Road, putting it in line with nearby Mount St. Helena. A climb up the peak, one of the region’s highest points, would put the Kincade fire on a possible path toward Napa and Lake counties.

“When the winds surface tomorrow it could threaten Calistoga and also get close to Middletown,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville said.

Calistoga residents were under an evacuation warning Monday, as aircraft blanketed parts of Mount St. Helena with fire retardant to help reduce the chance of it burning, he said.

Other efforts focused on the Mark West Springs Road corridor, where dozers cut lines into the rugged terrain ahead of the fire, including near Leslie Road, which winds through steep hills above and behind Larkfield and the Mayacama Golf Club.

Turbeville said there are two chances for the Kincade fire to turn and make its way along the route that connects Santa Rosa to Calistoga along Mark West Springs, Porter Creek and Petrified Forest roads.

Tuesday’s winds could turn the flames burning now above Mark West Springs, Porter Creek and Franz Valley roads back toward Santa Rosa on those routes, and also carry flames from the shoulders of Mount St. Helena toward the city.

“That’s the concern. It could be a repeat of the Tubbs’ fire path,” Turbeville said.

At the end of Loch Haven Drive, a winding road dotted with homes off Mark West Springs Road, a helicopter finished the last of an hour’s worth of water drops on a ridge that was threatened by flames overnight.

“It was like a horseshoe of glow,” said Pegeen Johnson, 54, whose home backs to the ridge.

The return of 30,000 west Sonoma County residents to their homes represented a turning point in the evacuations that displaced 186,000 people, said David Rabbitt, chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

Many others were in for at least another night at an area shelter.

Sisters Lynne Fredericks, 73, and Jeanne Welker, 70, knew they might be in for the long haul as they parked their black hatchback in the lot facing the Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Rosa Saturday afternoon. When mandatory evictions were issued, the pair turned their backs on a refrigerator full of fresh groceries and pot of homemade soup on the stove at their Windsor home and loaded up the car with their two cats, a Jack Russell terrier mix and enough rations for themselves and their pets.

Rather than stress out the animals and sleep on cots inside the American Red Cross emergency site that soon reached its 400-person capacity, the sisters registered their names inside and resolved to sleep in the car. From their experience during the Tubbs fire, they learned to bring enough to occupy themselves for several days, including books, laptops and a large spool of pink yarn for crocheting. Still, their hopes were trained on getting home as soon as possible.

“This is a life experience. What can you say?” Fredericks said of maintaining good spirits. “But I’m thinking this is the new way of life and what life is going to look like in California.”

Soon after the sisters arrived, Nancy Blank, 73, parked under the same American sycamore. She’d already been evacuated twice: After leaving her home in Windsor for a friend’s house in Sebastopol, she heard the distinct hi-lo siren telling her it was time to leave again. The ash that began to coat her silver Toyota Camry wasn’t a bad motivator either.

Exhausted, and already with a pillow, blanket and her go-bag from having left Windsor earlier in the day, Blank also opted to take refuge in the car.

“This is the second time in two years, and I don’t think we’re done with it,” said Blank. “Next year, from Oct. 1 to Thanksgiving, I’m going to be out of town, maybe Florida. I’m seriously going to think about it, and just get a ticket out of here.”

Staff Writers Nashelly Chavez and Chantelle Lee contributed to this story.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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