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Kincade fire evacuees from west Sonoma County allowed to return home as most others wait

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Lisa Frazee keeps calling home. Not the Wikiup house she lost two years ago in the Tubbs fire, but the phone in her east Windsor home that is perilously close to the wildfire now raging in the hills to the east.

The phone rings several times. And soon, Frazee hears the voice she desperately hopes to hear: “Hi, this is Lisa.”

It’s her answering machine. As long she can hear the sound of her own pre-recorded voice, she has reason to believe the fire has missed her home.

Frazee and her neighbors are among 155,000 people still under orders to evacuate homes and businesses in the potential path of the Kincade fire, which has enveloped more than 74,000 acres since it ignited in the northeast Sonoma County hills Wednesday night and prompted the largest evacuation in Sonoma County history.

About 30,000 residents were allowed to return to their homes Monday in a broad swath of west Sonoma County that stretches from Sebastopol, Forestville and Guerneville to the Pacific Ocean. But nearly a third of the county’s population remained under mandatory evacuation orders Monday evening, with no clear idea of when they will be permitted to return.

Even those allowed back to their homes in west county were warned to remain ready to evacuate immediately if the fire moves west, driven by gusty winds expected to arrive Tuesday morning and continue through Wednesday afternoon.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said he would confer with state fire officials and county emergency planners before making any decisions to lift the remaining evacuation orders — or implement new ones, a possibility he couldn’t rule out Monday ahead of the winds expected to rake the region.

“I would say it’s still a fluid situation with the wind event that’s coming up possibly Tuesday,” Essick said Monday morning at a news conference at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. “We’re going to continuously evaluate, work with Cal Fire, work with their intel to really determine what the best course of action would be.”

The evacuation orders, intended to protect human lives in event of the worst-case scenario and allow firefighters to focus on extinguishing the blaze, sent a exodus of people to safe havens south of the fire. The vast majority took refuge with friends and family or booked hotel rooms while pondering their next month. More than 3,200 people were housed in Red Cross or community shelters across the Bay Area on Monday, according to a Red Cross representative. The Red Cross has tried to set up new shelters as others fill up, and officials told evacuees they should travel to Napa or Alameda counties as refuges in Petaluma reached capacity.

Essick said he only considered lifting orders for places that hadn’t burned, so Windsor residents, like Frazee, remained away from their homes. She hopes to return by the weekend, but until then, as in October 2017, she is staying with her husband’s parents in Milpitas.

The Tubbs fire evacuation was “eerie,” Frazee remembers, with wild animals fleeing and embers flying all around her under a ominous sky shortly before 1:30 a.m. But she said she’d prefer that to her experience on Saturday, when she and her family drove north from an aborted trip to Disneyland for her son’s birthday. She felt utterly helpless and scared that she was too far away to reach the family’s two dogs if the Kincade fire reached her house.

“We felt like we were going to win a Darwin award because we were driving to the fire, not away from the fire,” she said. But she went anyway, propelled by “this absolute fear: What if we can’t get to them?”

Frazee knew she wouldn’t make it back to Windsor by the time the evacuation order covering her home took effect. But the dogs, Brick and Pixie, are safe, and so are many of their possessions and their two vehicles, thanks to a handful of friends and neighbors like Colleen Conrad.

Conrad, a friend of Frazee’s for decades, got a frantic call Saturday: “‘Oh my god, Colleen, they’re evacuating us.’” She had a key to Frazee’s house to water the plants and quickly left her Penngrove home to prevent the family from losing everything — again.

Pictures, legal documents, jewelry, a computer, a backpack and whatever other items she could grab were stuffed into Conrad’s vehicle, as other friends showed up to help move Frazee’s vehicles and other possessions. Conrad spent a few hours in east Windsor on Saturday as the fire closed in before joining the slow-moving caravan of evacuees heading south.

“I would have never even given it a second thought,” Conrad said.

Mike Nicholls didn’t question the order to leave his home in Cazadero, even though the fire menacing Windsor would have to cross Highway 101, the Russian River and 15 miles of terrain to reach his house.

Nicholls, president of Cazadero’s Community Services District board, needed only 30 minutes to get out after learning of the evacuation order. He grabbed his go-bag, packed up his three cats and drove down Highway 1 with his husband to stay with his daughter in San Francisco, who has children and animals of her own.

“It was just a zoo, with the pets and the grandkids,” he said. “It was a good experience, it was positive.”

Benji, one of the cats, was yowling as Nicholls made his way back home along River Road through Guerneville. Though he described a pleasant stay in the city, Nicholls supposed he was as glad to be getting home as the cat.

He also expressed profound gratitude for firefighters for stopping the fire before it crossed Highway 101.

“They did a superb job,” Nicholls said. “Had they not been able to hold the line, I really hesitate to think what could have happened.”

Nicholls’ decision to leave, like Conrad’s choice to help, was an easier puzzle than what Will Abrams had on his hands. A self-described “social entrepreneur,” Abrams lost his Hidden Hills home to the Tubbs fire two years ago. He was living in the Skyhawk area on Santa Rosa’s northeastern edge for the time being when the Kincade fire pushed him, his wife and their two kids to Berkeley.

But after a fire broke out in Vallejo on Sunday, and with high winds expected to start Tuesday, even the East Bay seemed precarious. Abrams and his family planned to spend Monday night in a hotel in South San Francisco, making it easier to get to the San Francisco International Airport if they decided they wanted to fly to be with family on the East Coast.

“I’m not necessarily feeling all that safe,” Abrams said. “Some of that is practical, and some of that is just pure emotional, not wanting to have my kids go through another run-from-the-flames experience.”

For Abrams, an avowed critic of PG&E — which reported an equipment problem on a transmission tower near the start of the Kincade fire — the most recent wildfire brings more reasons to rail against the utility. But it also challenges him to address the logistics of his main focus: “Staying strong for family.”

“Is staying strong jumping on a plane and leaving? Or is it staying to fight with my community?” Abrams said, his voice filled with frustration and concern: “Is it staying 5 miles away, or 500 miles away? Where is that safe zone?”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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