Containment now 60% on Kincade Fire in wine country as thousands of evacuees return home

Firefighters battling the Kincade Fire had a second night of calm winds, several hours after officials announced residents would be allowed to return to Healdsburg, Windsor and many other areas that had been under evacuation orders since Saturday.

By 7 a.m. Thursday, Cal Fire said the fire had burned 76,825 acres – 120 square miles – and was 60 percent contained, holding the size of the fire the same as it quadruple the containment in a span of 36 hours.

“Fire personnel made good progress in their fire fighting efforts today due to favorable weather conditions,” Cal Fire said in an update. “Access to the northern part of the fire remains challenging because of steep terrain and narrow roads, but firefighters will continue to build on the progress they made today with more control lines being established.”

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said before the Wednesday afternoon announcement that about half the county’s evacuees, or 30,000 people, already had evacuation orders lifted.

“We’re all tired, you’re all anxious to get home,” the sheriff said in a video message posted on Facebook. “We’re ready for you to get home, as well...

“A significant number of people should be getting some good news today.”

Some of that news came Wednesday afternoon, when Cal Fire announced that evacuation orders for several areas – including the entire town of Windsor and city of Healdsburg – had been downgraded to evacuation warnings, leaving the communities open for residents to return if they chose.

Overnight winds weaker than forecast

Essick noted that the worst fears about Tuesday night’s winds were not realized.

“The evening went well, and the wind event was not as strong as had been anticipated,” he said.

The National Weather Service measured some high gusts overnight – 60 mph in the Healdsburg Hills and 58 mph in St. Helena – and maintained a Red Flag warning through 4 p.m. Wednesday. But the winds were not as sustained as had been feared and firefighting teams worked through the night in Sonoma County, shoring up lines and putting out flareups.

“They were fighting the fires pretty aggressively last night,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Janine Summy said. “They were able to put out more line and more water out and that increased our percentage to 30.

“It’s the fact that they were staged and ready and poised and in the right place.”

Cal Fire said 90,015 structures are still considered threatened by the fire, which began Oct. 23 and has destroyed 141 homes and damaged 33 others. A total of 332 structures have been destroyed or damaged.

Some areas of Sonoma still burn

Areas east of Windsor remained under evacuation orders, and Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine said early Wednesday that firefighters were focusing their efforts in those spots.

“We are highly motivated to get you back into the community as soon as possible,” Heine said. “However, we still have many issues around the town of Windsor with this fire to still deal with.

“We have hot spots that need to be tended to so that when we do allow you back into your neighborhoods it is a safe environment for you and your family.”

Evacuation warnings lifted along Pacific Coast

Evacuations over the weekend led to more than 180,000 people being displaced from parts of Santa Rosa all the way to the coastline, but evacuation warnings for areas west of the Highway 101 corridor such as Bodega Bay were lifted entirely as firefighters continued to make progress.

Cal Fire has 5,245 people assigned to the blaze, including Larry Barlow of Monterey County’s North County Fire Protection District, who arrived in Santa Rosa a week ago when the first first erupted.

Barlow and his fellow firefighters worked 24-hour days installing hose lines, protecting structures and doing hand line work with 20- and 30-pound packs on, he said. The 27-year firefighter previously came up for the Tubbs Fire in 2017, which called for less wild land work and more structure defense, he said.

Each grueling shift is followed by 24 hours off, during which Barlow said he cleans and refuels the fire engine, gets some food, naps and showers. The best way to recharge for the next shift is often just getting some alone time, he said, and calling his family.

“My wife’s really understanding, my kids understand it. It’s what I’ve been doing for so long that once I go here it could be for two days or it could be for two weeks,” Barlow said. “(But) you get older, so it takes a toll on your body over a while.”

Robert Madden also left a family behind in Grass Valley, where he works as a tree feller. He spent 14 days contracting for Cal Fire during the Tubbs Fire; Wednesday was his first day on the Kincade Fire.

Most tree service employees or loggers that contract with Cal Fire drop their other projects upon getting a call from the state, Madden said. That causes its own problems, as those other jobs get left in limbo for as long as it takes to contain the fire.

“For most fellers out here, the fire season becomes their priority. And so the logging – as long as they’re not in the middle of a big job, most companies put it off,” Madden said. “That can be a stressor too, because those jobs get put on hold and you never know when you’re truly coming home.”

The fire has wreaked havoc in some areas of Sonoma County wine country, damaging or destroying some wineries and singing vineyards.

Late Tuesday, near the Beringer Vineyards’ Knights Valley vineyard, a gnarled, leafless oak tree stood isolated in a field across Highway 128, limbs twisted in every direction. Those branches were glowing orange like misshapen jack-o-lanterns in the night sky by 10 p.m. Tuesday night, wind cascading their sparks toward the vineyard for hours.

California’s fire weary residents: Should we stay?

As the firefight entered its second week, some veteran residents of California wildfires were beginning to question whether living in the area is still worth the price.

“Do we want to deal with this every year?” asked Mike Hartnett, whose house east of Santa Rosa still had power Tuesday night but was only four doors down from where generators were roaring to power another home. “Where every October it’s, ‘Okay, yeah, now we have to be prepared – generators, PG&E shutoffs, fires are coming?’

“No, we don’t want to deal with that ... I don’t want live scared, on edge every year.”

Hartnett said he fled the Santa Rosa neighborhood of Coffey Park two years ago during the Tubbs Fire and took refuge at his family’s house in Windsor, where he met Angela Haseltine. Now living together, the couple had the ironic misfortune of hosting the same family members who previously helped Hartnett after the Kincade Fire forced their evacuation.

Haseltine had planned to take Hartnett’s truck to her dad’s house in Sonoma if they needed to evacuate, but was having second thoughts after looking at weather patterns. Hartnett would remain behind until the last possible minute, he said.

“I’m going to hold the fort down. But when it comes down to the end, I’m going to ride out on my Harley,” he said.

After being impacted by evacuations in two of the last three years, though, Hartnett said he’s ready to move on from Sonoma County – and likely California. He and Haseltine are considering moving to Idaho, Ohio, Virginia, Montana or Canada, mostly because of the fires, he said.

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.
Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.