Firefighters brace for pivotal battle against Kincade fire
An army of close to 5,000 firefighters fortified defenses Tuesday and braced for a critical battle overnight to keep the Kincade fire from assaulting Santa Rosa, one week after it roared to life in howling winds above the Alexander Valley.
One final burst of wind, with gusts up to 70 mph on the North Bay’s tallest peaks and half that speed in the valleys, was expected to fan the 119-square-mile wildfire — about three times the size of Santa Rosa — between late Tuesday night and daybreak Wednesday. After that, weather forecasters say, the wildfire-riddled state — with 10 active blazes from Modoc County to San Diego County — should get a break for at least a week.
“These next 12 to 24 hours are a crucial period for turning a corner on this fire,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville said.
The fire was sparked Wednesday night near a PG&E transmission tower that had not been deactivated during a blackout and malfunctioned. Investigators have not determined what role, if any, the broken equipment played in the fire’s origin.
The wind-driven fire forced nearly 200,000 residents from their homes in the largest mass evacuation in Sonoma County history. Repeated power outages left nearly half of the county without electricity as temperatures plummeted to near freezing.
From his perch atop Mount St. Helena, the region’s highest peak, Turbeville found winds hitting 50 mph and watched from on high as the fire fought itself, trying to burn uphill but facing shifting air that pushed it back onto its own freshly made burn scar.
“That’s very good,” he said. The shift not only reduced the fire damage but eased the threat to nearby Middletown at the south end of Lake County.
Officials touted progress Tuesday on the fire, 15 percent contained Tuesday night, having grown by only 720 acres during the day.
Helicopters had dropped 2.1 million gallons of water and air tankers had unleashed 1 million gallons of retardant on the blaze, Cal Fire Division Chief Jonathan Cox reported at a Tuesday night news conference.
The Kincade fire has destroyed 189 structures, including 86 homes, and threatens 90,015 structures, including 80,435 homes.
But late Tuesday, fire commanders still feared the flames, which had been moving away from Sonoma County cities for the past day, might turn back toward Santa Rosa and Windsor as the winds shifted and gained in intensity.
Anticipating the possibility that northeast winds could whip the Kincade fire down the Mark West Springs corridor — the same path the deadly Tubbs fire took into the city in 2017 — about 200 firefighters stood guard near the gateway to the city.
About 75 firefighters stood at the ready in Windsor and Larkfield Tuesday afternoon, with 50 more at the Luther Burbank Center near Larkfield and another 50 in the Mark West Springs Road area, Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine said. Many more were ready to join them if needed.
It was a sharp contrast to two years ago, when the Tubbs fire roared into Santa Rosa, devouring thousands of homes while firefighters focused their efforts on moving frightened people from the firestorm’s path. The fire killed 22 people and destroyed more than 4,600 homes.