Kincade Fire in Sonoma County grows to 10,000 acres, evacuation orders expanded – San Francisco Chronicle

A fast-moving wildfire spurred by powerful winds tore across northeastern Sonoma County early Thursday, burning more than 10,000 acres and forcing the evacuation of up to 2,000 residents — including the entire town of Geyserville.

The Kincade Fire was burning near the Geysers geothermal plant in the Mayacamas Mountains with 0% containment, the glow visible for miles. By dawn, the fire had destroyed or damaged at least a dozen homes and other structures along Geyser Road, including at least two large buildings at Crazy Creek Vineyards in the Alexander Valley.

The fire started around 9:25 p.m. Wednesday on John Kincade Road, in an area where the power had been shut off over weather-related concerns, Cal Fire officials said. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had shut off power to parts of Sonoma and other Northern California counties Wednesday afternoon in an effort to prevent fires from being sparked by power lines damaged or downed by strong winds.

Gusts reached 76 mph overnight on the region’s highest peaks, according to the National Weather Service.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known. PG&E spokeswoman Karly Hernandez said the fire was burning “near the (shut-off) footprint and we are working to gather additional information.” The utility cut power to about 27,830 Sonoma County customers at 3 p.m., she noted.

As crews realized they would need to evacuate residents, one firefighter alerted dispatch that the power was out in the area of the 10000 block of Pine Flat Road and there was “a limited ability to make phone calls. We need to go door to door.”

With electronic evacuation alerts limited to text messages, residents near the fire notified their neighbors while firefighters banged on doors to urge people to leave immediately.

Strong winds and embers pushed the blaze from north to south in steep and rugged terrain, said Amy Head, a Cal Fire battalion chief.

At least 328 firefighters were on the scene, as well as engines, bulldozers and hand crews. At first light Cal Fire planned to put aircraft in the skies for visual inspections and then to battle flames, Head said.

“It’s outpacing us,” Head said of the fire. “We’re just trying to keep up with it and bump ahead of it. It’s growing very rapidly in a short amount of time.”

There were no reports of deaths or injuries.

As the fire spread along Geysers Road, erratic winds kicked up embers and ash that swirled like tiny tornadoes. Along the road, a steady line of bulldozers headed toward the flames as cars filled with evacuees drove to safety.

Flames gutted several structures at the intersection of Red Winery and Geysers Road. A power line drooped over the street at the intersection, and several feet away flames chewed away at a power pole.

With fires still burning small structures, the fire engines at the scene packed up and left.

“More fires to fight,” a firefighter yelled out the window as they pulled away.

One home on Red Winery Road suffered damage when a large tree, cracked at the trunk by strong winds, toppled onto the roof.

By morning, the blaze had pushed west and headed into Alexander Valley vineyards, leaving the hillside to the east of Geysers Road scorched. About a dozen cows huddled together on one small patch of land that hadn’t burned.

Mandatory evacuations were initially ordered for areas east of Highway 128, including the River Rock Casino, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. Those orders expanded after the blaze jumped Highway 128 and headed west.

“If you’re in Geyserville, leave now,” officials wrote in an alert, urging people in the town of 860 to head south.

Arch Monson, 69, and his family had already fled from their property, Monson Vineyards, on Geysers Road at 3 a.m. They headed downhill to stay with a neighbor.

The fire “was on our property when we left,” Monson said, adding that his family has lived there since 1957. “As we were pulling out, firefighters were pulling in.

“We were hearing explosions — loud booms — presumably from propane tanks,” Monson said. “It seemed like there was a burst of wind and fire was coming down to the valley floor.”

The neighbor’s home to which he’d fled was no longer safe, Monson said. At 5 a.m., they evacuated again.

“We were pretty far away, but we’re seeing live embers in the air swirling around, landing and a lot of thick smoke,” Monson said. “You could see the fire had moved down the foothills. We just could tell it was time to get out. On the road out we saw fences on fire, landscaping, trees on fire.”

Evacuation centers were in place at Windsor High School, 8695 Windsor Road in Windsor, and at the Healdsburg Community Center at 1557 Healdsburg Ave.

Paula Whitehall, 65, was among 10 evacuees who slept at the Healdsburg center. She fled her house on Moody Lane in Geyserville, which was in a power outage area, and she said she didn’t receive any electronic notification of the evacuation.

“The Fire Department came and said we had to leave,” she said.

Whitehall grabbed a change of clothes, dog food, a couple of gallons of water and her corgi mix, Zoey, before going outside with her sister and brother-in-law, who live with her. She saw the fire raging a short distance away on a hill next to the River Rock Casino.

“We could see the flames once we got outside,” said Whitehall, still wearing her pajamas. “I just thought, ‘Here we go again.’

“I guess I should’ve had a bag packed ahead already,” she said, adding, “I am a California girl. Earthquakes, fires, it’s all part of the seasons.”


Karen Vaughan, 56, an Oklahoma native who owns a small travel company and moved to Healdsburg six months ago, said she saw a wall of flames and freaked out, but nobody else in her neighborhood seemed to be bothered. There was an evacuation warning, a step below mandatory-evacuation status, for the northern part of the city.

“I was sitting on my balcony and I looked out and I saw the whole mountainside on fire,” Vaughan said. “It looked like it was coming toward me.”

She rushed to a neighbor’s house, woke her up and tried to get her to leave.

“I said, ‘There’s a big wall of fire,’ and she said, ‘No, I’m staying.’”

Vaughan hopped into her car and drove to the Windsor High School evacuation center.

“I think people are numb and they’re used to it,” she said. “It’s scary is all I can say, and I’m not a fearful person. It looked close, and these fires move quickly.”

Healdsburg Mayor David Hagele said fire is now a yearly trauma.

“This is the new normal that we live in. It’s disheartening and it’s scary for a lot of people because it does bring back a lot of scary memories from a couple of years ago,” Hagele said. “We’re trying to do what we can to help our neighbors to the north.”

Strong winds and warm temperatures spurred the fire into the morning. By 5 a.m., temperatures at the Santa Rosa Airport had reached 77 degrees with 11% humidity, according to the National Weather Service. Winds gusted up to 45 mph in Sonoma County, with calmer conditions expected starting around 10 a.m.

The conditions were nearly the same as when the Tubbs Fire tore through Napa and Sonoma counties two years ago, said meteorologist Ryan Walbrun.

“Pretty much everything lined up: strong winds, dry fuels, hot temperatures and low humidity,” he said. “This is what can happen.”

In a statement, PG&E officials said Wednesday the decision to power down “was based on forecasts of dry, hot and windy weather that poses a higher risk for damage and sparks on the electric system and rapid wildfire spread.”

More planned outages could come this weekend.

PG&E Chief Meterorologist Scott Strenfel said this weekend “could bring the strongest wind event of the season” — even stronger than the winds experienced during the 2017 Wine Country fires.

David Huebel, 40, works as a vineyard manager at Hafner Vineyard, which is seven miles outside of Healdsburg. The property was hit by PG&E’s power shut-off Wednesday afternoon, and at first Huebel was worried only about how the family-run vineyard would finish harvesting its Cabernet Sauvignon.

Then, around 9:35 p.m., Huebel stepped outside to turn off his generator, looked toward the Mayacamas Mountains and saw a faint glow.

“I was asking myself, ‘Is that fire?’” Huebel said. “Everything about the scene was wrong. There shouldn’t have been light right there, it shouldn’t have been orange. It was a couple minutes later I saw a column of smoke. We watched it grow for more than two hours before we left.”

Huebel watched the Tubbs Fire burn across Sonoma County in 2017, from Calistoga to Santa Rosa. The strange light that flickered in the hills never seemed to end. He quickly called his neighbors, alerting them to the new fire.

When the evacuation order for Red Winery Road came at 12:32 a.m., Huebel didn’t hesitate. He left with his wife and two children, 11 and 18.

“Here we go,” he remembers thinking, “this one is too close.”

San Francisco Chronicle staff writers Lauren Hernández and J.D. Morris contributed to this report.

Peter Fimrite, Megan Cassidy, Matthias Gafni and Jill Tucker are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: pfrimrite@sfchronicle.com, megan.cassidy@sfchronicle.com, matthias.gafni@sfchronicle.com, jtucker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @pfimrite @meganrcassidy @mgafni @JillTucker

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