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Kincade fire burns into history as Sonoma County’s largest blaze

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The Kincade fire burned into history Wednesday, becoming Sonoma County’s largest wildfire by scorching an area three times the size of Santa Rosa as a force of more than 5,000 firefighters gained a grip on the week-old conflagration.

Wednesday night’s winds were weaker than expected, and fire crews expanded the protective lines between the flames and populated areas, a feat that did not occur with the calamitous fires in the fall of 2017.

“I would say there’s a lot of optimism that we have turned the corner for the better on this fire,” Cal Fire Division Chief Jonathan Cox said at the fire agency’s Thursday night press conference.

The fire, which erupted with a fury during a potent windstorm Oct. 23 in the Mayacamas Mountains east of Geyserville, grew by only 700 acres Tuesday night — a difference Cal Fire attributed to improved mapping — and got no larger Wednesday, finishing the day at 76,825 acres, or 120 square miles.

Containment jumped to 45% Wednesday, up from 15% the day before. The Kincade fire has now destroyed 266 structures, including 133 homes, an increase Cox attributed to a more accurate damage assessment by Cal Fire teams. Four first responders have been injured battling the blaze.

The fire’s initial power prompted the evacuation of nearly 190,000 people, the largest ever in county history. By Wednesday night, only 5,778 residents remaining under mandatory evacuation orders, most of them in the remote, sparsely populated areas of Knights Valley and the hills east of Geyserville, Sheriff Mark Essick said.

“We believe most of the threat is now in our rearview mirror,” Essick said at the press conference.

The last active fire area Wednesday was at the base of 4,343-foot Mount St. Helena at the corner of Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties, where helicopters and air tankers poured water and retardant on the blaze, Cox said.

In setting a fire footprint record, the Kincade fire exceeded the Nuns fire (56,556 acres), the Tubbs fire (36,807 acres) and the Pocket fire at 17,357 acres — the only one of the 2017 wildfires that burned solely in Sonoma County.

The 2017 fires, however, killed 24 people and destroyed more than 5,300 homes in Sonoma County.

Firefighters in the field Wednesday expressed satisfaction with their hard-won gains.

“We dodged a bullet,” said Sid Andreis, a new fire captain and a lifelong Larkfield resident. “It was a good night.”

The threat that menaced the edges of Healdsburg, Windsor and north Santa Rosa was blunted by repeat assaults by firefighters combating the wind-driven fire and its flying embers.

Fire officials expressed confidence they had blocked the blaze at the Highway 101 and Mark West Springs corridors near Santa Rosa, a mission accomplished during a particularly fierce two-day assault against the fire’s western push.

“It feels like we turned the corner,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville, who is also Geyserville’s fire chief.

Local firefighters Tuesday night were determined to turn back the threat posed by the Kincade fire to communities still rebuilding from the Tubbs inferno, feeling they’d failed to stop the blaze two years ago and now had a chance to prevent a repeat disaster.

“It was pretty awesome. It’s a good day,” said a jubilant but weary veteran fire Capt. Rob Bisordi, who has spent much of his life living and working as a firefighter in the Larkfield area.

By Wednesday night, PG&E had restored power to about 452,000 of the 516,000 customers affected by Tuesday’s shut-off in 22 counties. In Sonoma County, about 67% of the nearly 87,000 customers affected by the shutdown had their power restored.

The fire broke out Oct. 23 during heavy winds near a PG&E transmission tower that had not been deactivated during the power shutoff. PG&E discovered a broken jumper at the tower, but investigators have not determined whether the malfunction played a role in sparking the wildfire.

Alex Hoon, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said Wednesday marked the end of the forceful winds. But the agency issued a freeze advisory for early Thursday, warning that temperatures could drop to 25 to 32 degrees in Sonoma County and into the low 20s in isolated spots west of Santa Rosa and in the Alexander Valley, a wine grape growing area that sustained serious damage from the Kincade fire in the past week.

There is also no rain coming for the next seven days, Hoon said.

Essick said it would take time to get the remaining residents back into their remote homes that are in or near the burned zone.

Power lines, telephone lines and trees have fallen onto the road, he said, noting that dozens of trees were down along Chalk Hill Road. Some homes in the evacuated area appear habitable, but others have burned to the ground, the sheriff said.

Cal Fire damage assessment teams are currently documenting the locations and the degree of damage to the homes, he said.

Also Wednesday, a 25-year-old Santa Rosa man was arrested on suspicion of arson in connection with a fire that burned about 3½ acres about 6 a.m. along Rockpile Road, near Lake Sonoma. The suspect, Andrew Craig Faulkner, was near the scene of the fire, Cal Fire said.

Crews were able to contain that fire quickly, Cal Fire said.

As thousands returned to their homes Wednesday, “heavy commute” traffic developed, but not in the usual places, CHP Capt. Ari Wolfe said, urging motorists to use caution.

“Stay strong and welcome home,” he said.

Dr. Celeste Philip, the county’s public health officer, said residents yearning for a home-cooked meal should also be cautious. Food in a refrigerator without power for more than four hours is no longer safe to eat, she said.

“When in doubt, throw it out,” she added.

The county’s air quality is improving, but that could change, Philip said. If the air smells of smoke, people with health conditions that make them vulnerable to air pollution should stay indoors.

The number of people at American Red Cross shelters dropped as evacuation orders were lifted for Sebastopol, Guerneville, Bodega Bay, Forestville and other west county municipalities, as well as the northern portion of the Dry Creek Valley in north county.

At the fire’s height, more than 3,200 people were registered at the 16 shelters established across the North Bay and San Francisco. On Wednesday, the total had fallen to about 2,800, according to American Red Cross staff.

Assemblyman Jim Wood of Santa Rosa was at the news conference and said he was going home for the first time Wednesday night.

“I think we came through this a lot better than we did two years ago,” he said. The Kincade fire “could have been catastrophic” for Healdsburg, Windsor and Larkfield, he said.

Full containment is expected Nov. 4, and the cause of the fire remains unknown.

Staff Writers Julie Johnson and Randi Rossmann contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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