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Firefighters brace for pivotal battle against Kincade fire

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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.

This time, thousands of area residents left days ago under mandatory evacuation orders, freeing firefighters to focus on defending homes and knocking down flames.

“(The firefighters) are going to all be deployed to protect homes and businesses and make a direct attack,” Heine said. “That’s a luxury we didn’t have in 2017.”

Firefighting forces also stacked up along Highway 101 near populated areas Tuesday, recalling the fire had come within several hundred feet of the freeway near Windsor on Sunday, Cox said earlier in the day. Revitalized flames had hurdled Highway 128 as the fire moved toward Healdsburg and Windsor, he noted.

“(Highway) 101 is one of our priorities to hold, and that whole area that’s populated on the 101 corridor,” Cox said. “That will be the test this evening when that wind comes through, and that’s why you’ll see a significant number of resources in place around those communities.”

The Tuesday night fight could determine whether the Kincade fire becomes another catastrophe.

“We’re looking forward to getting through this red flag condition and a stable weather pattern ahead of us when we can put this fire to bed,” Heine said.

The day’s main fire firefight happened far from greater Santa Rosa, along an arm of the fire burning up Mount St. Helena that threatened communities in Lake and Napa counties — and opened another path for the fire to take into Sonoma County.

Some 300 firefighters were on that effort, aided by a heavy response from the air. The fire had gotten about one‑third up the mountain Tuesday and was pushing in two directions, driving farther uphill into Lake County but also back north toward The Geysers, Turbeville said.

While Turbeville headed for Mount St. Helena, Heine was up along the Mark West corridor, assessing the situation. By mid‑afternoon, at Pepperwood Preserve off Franz Valley Road, winds at 1,000 feet were at 42 mph, he said.

The Kincade fire already burned a large part of the preserve when it made a run Sunday and Monday. On Tuesday, firefighters were shoring up new containment lines in the area.

“I think Larkfield is a concern. Enough to put a lot of resources over there to protect it,” Heine said.

Unlike the 2017 disaster, emergency alerting and evacuations were done ahead of Kincade fire, he noted. “We were able to evacuate 45,000 people out of Healdsburg and Windsor in six hours,” Heine said.

Also, with staffing boosted during the red flag warning issued last week, dozens of additional firefighters were able to respond immediately toward The Geysers when the fire started Oct. 23.

Two years ago, dozens of fires started in Northern California within hours of each other, including more than a dozen in Sonoma County, and competition for firefighting resources meant Sonoma County went days before getting major aid from other areas.

Concern for fire moving back into Santa Rosa led officials Tuesday to call up staff for an additional five Santa Rosa fire engines to stay within the city, joining those at the 10 fully staffed fire stations citywide.

“We’re not taking this wind event lightly,” said Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal. “We’ve seen what winds can do at fires. We’ve watched them blow across containment lines.”

“The fear is,” Assistant Sonoma County Sheriff Jim Naugle said Tuesday night, referring to a Cal Fire worst-case scenario, “the fire’s gonna work in a southwesterly direction.”

As he spoke, he swept his hand over Larkfield-Wikiup, then west, over northern Santa Rosa and Coffey Park. “Cause if you look at it now, that’s exactly the way the winds are blowing.”

Once the winds abate Wednesday, California appears due for at least a week’s break.

A ridge of high pressure building over the western states will push any low pressure system off to the east out of Nevada and into the heartlands of Nebraska, National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Anderson said.

The raging winds that have sparked wildfires and prompted four widespread preemptive power outages have been caused by high and low pressure systems in close proximity, with winds blowing from high to low pressure areas, he said.

But the same dynamic will also forestall rain for the next 10 to 14 days, keeping the state tinderbox dry most likely until mid-November, the weather service said.

Sheriff Mark Essick allowed about 2,400 residents to return to their homes in the Dry Creek Valley area west of Healdsburg, leaving 147,600 people — including about 60,000 Santa Rosa residents — still under mandatory evacuation orders.

PG&E initiated another widespread shut-off Tuesday morning, cutting power to nearly 600,000 customers in 29 counties. About 86,713 customers in Sonoma County were affected by the outage, many of them among the 93,000 customers who lost power in the weekend shutdown.

A firefighter burned while fighting the Kincade fire Sunday was in stable condition Tuesday afternoon, said San Diego Fire Capt. Joseph Amador, who was tapped by Cal Fire to help as a spokesman for the Kincade fire.

His burns were non-life-threatening and the injury was under investigation, Amador said. A second firefighter was also burned while battling the blaze Sunday, though that injury was minor, he said.

Thousands of out-of-town firefighters occupied the Park & Ride area adjacent to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, where Cal Fire had set up a makeshift tent city to accommodate the mutual aid forces called in to fight the Kincade fire.

Agency logos adorning the fire engines showed crews had come from Sacramento and Huntington Beach as well as north into Oregon and Washington.

Holding bags filled with personal belongings and clothing, groups of exhausted firefighters — who work 24 hours on and 24 hours off — made their way to the dozens of mobile sleeping trailers on the fairgrounds near Brookwood Avenue.

Darrin Culp, a 52-year-old firefighter from Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue in Oregon, was coming off a daylong shift on the fire lines and getting ready to sleep.

“Our next step is to go get some rest so we can be prepared to go back out,” Culp said. “Eat, sleep, rest as much as you can wherever you can. And then work.”

Staff Writers Will Schmitt, Nashelly Chavez, Austin Murphy and Chantelle Lee contributed to this report. 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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