California declares statewide emergency over wildfires as mass evacuation continues

Firefighters battle hot spots and conduct structure protection in a Foothill subdivision neighbourhood in Windsor, California, on Oct 27, 2019.
Firefighters battle hot spots and conduct structure protection in a Foothill subdivision neighbourhood in Windsor, California, on Oct 27, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

SANTA ROSA (WASHINGTON POST) - California's governor declared a statewide emergency on Sunday (Oct 27) as wind-fueled fires spread across Sonoma County and prompted mass evacuations.

Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, pledged to deploy "every resource available" as crews fought blazes in Northern California and weather threatened to exacerbate fire conditions on both ends of the state.

In Sonoma, one of the largest evacuations in the county's history was underway as ferocious winds and dry air fueled a wildfire that has raged in the region for days.

The county sheriff's office estimated that 180,000 people had been ordered to flee the Kincade Fire, which had spread to 50,000 acres and was less than 10 percent contained as of Sunday evening. Officials rapidly expanded the number of areas under mandatory evacuation orders in the early hours of the morning as gusts as high as 93 mph swept through the hills and valleys north of the San Francisco Bay area.

The fires outside of Healdsburg appeared to rapidly intensify overnight, according to the National Weather Service, turning State Route 128 into a hellish gantlet and consuming the Soda Rock Winery, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The town of Geyserville, near where the fire started, also suffered damage, Cal Fire spokesman Scott Ross said.

In a flurry of predawn alerts, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office told residents in the northern portion of Santa Rosa, as well as areas southwest and northeast of the city, to evacuate immediately.

About 200 patients were evacuated from two medical centers in the area, Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, and relocated to safer facilities, according to hospital and local fire officials.


Patricia Blanchard said she lost power about 8pm Saturday in her small town of Monte Rio. The outage was soon followed by a visit from a Sonoma County deputy who ordered her to leave immediately. She left her ID and credit cards behind in the rush.

In Windsor, just a few miles from the fire, a police car sped north Sunday morning, as an officer on a megaphone urged residents to "Go! Go! Go!".

Evacuations proceeded smoothly, officials said, with few road incidents on the packed highway that served as evacuees' main thoroughfare to safety.

The overnight winds had pushed the Kincade Fire south into some nearby communities, said Cal Fire analyst Steve Volmer, and of utmost concern were new fires in the area that could spring up as a result of the weather.

Volmer said authorities were concerned that the fire could travel west of the 101 highway, an area that had not burned for decades and, therefore, contained "extremely dense" and dry fuels for a raging fire to feast upon.

The highway was closed near Windsor and Healdsburg because of poor visibility.

Firefighters managed to hold the fire behind the 101 as of Sunday evening, officials said. Elsewhere in Northern California, crews battled smaller blazes that prompted evacuations and burned buildings. But the "Kincade Fire remains the most stubborn challenge that we face," Newsom said.

Sunday's new evacuation orders significantly expanded the number of residents who will have to flee the growing fires and further taxed emergency workers.

More than 3,000 people were on hand to battle the Kincade Fire, assisted by 50 helicopters and several air tankers that flew suppression missions over the blaze as the weather allowed. The fast-moving flames have consumed 79 structures since the fire began last week.


In Santa Rosa, where 60,000 people were told to evacuate as of Sunday morning, the rest of the city of about 175,000 was warned to prepare to leave if conditions worsened, said Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal with the Santa Rosa Fire Department.

Along the city's main drag downtown, at the edge of the evacuation zones, most stores were closed. But Belly Left Coast Kitchen and Tap Room was packed at 2pm. Owner Gray Rollin said he opened up with the local community and evacuees in mind.

"I know there's craziness going on all around us," Rollin said. "They need a sense of normality." Evacuations are increasingly a reality of living in fire-prone California. During last year's Camp Fire that leveled Paradise as 153,000 acres burned in November, about 52,000 people were eventually ordered from their homes. The October 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County burned 36,000 acres and forced 97,000 people to leave the area.

In Sonoma County, heavy winds kicked up leaves and knocked down branches as smartphones buzzed with emergency evacuation alerts in English and Spanish. Roads were congested as residents packed up their cars and RVs to head out of the county. Traffic lights at several intersections lost power, further slowing evacuation efforts.

A caravan of cars made their way southbound on the 101 freeway Sunday morning as residents heeded the warning, and county shelters filled with some 4,600 people by the evening.

Carol and David Pajala had fled Santa Rosa with their golden retriever after the predawn alert came through. They had found shelter at a fairground in Petaluma, a city about 17 miles south, which authorities had established for displaced residents.

"This is apocalyptic," Carol Pajala, 67, said of the massive evacuation effort.

At a shelter at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, in Santa Rosa, members of the Red Cross and volunteers served up a breakfast of bagels and other dry items. Evacuees listened to the radio, while the sounds of birds chirping and dogs barking filled the air.

Pam Tryph and her partner said they evacuated their Forestville home Saturday night, with a dog and two cats in tow. They had started to prepare for a possible evacuation after they watched the fires the night before, which "looked like lava coming over the crest of the hill," Tryph said.

They had time to pack papers, passports, instruments, paintings and sentimental items, such as a needlepoint passed down to Tryph from her great-great-grandmother and a mask that Tryph's daughter had made in the seventh grade.

But not every resident immediately heeded the call to leave, despite officials' repeated warnings that ignoring evacuations would put responders in danger. Mike Martinez was still in Windsor on Sunday morning, even as he received endless alerts and the fire approached.

"I've got a barn, a residence and a lot of equipment a half-mile from here," said Martinez, 69. "I've also got a pool and some pumps and, I'm going to try and save it." California forecasters saw the 'devil wind' storm coming. It's the worst-case scenario for wildfires.


The powerful winds could continue until at least the early afternoon. An "extremely critical" fire weather area, the National Weather Service's highest category, was in effect in several counties north of San Francisco.

The National Weather Service said it expects winds to quicken as night falls and to continue overnight.

Red flag warnings indicating weather with high fire risk were issued in 43 counties by Sunday evening, officials said.

"This is probably one of the biggest weather incidents in California history," said Craig Clements, fire meteorologist at San Jose State University.

Forecasters said low humidity and abnormally dry vegetation had created tinderbox conditions, which, combined with the high winds, were "plenty supportive of extreme fire spread." Weather Service forecasters predicted that winds would peak between 9am and 3pm local time before weakening some by Sunday late afternoon or evening. They also warned that the dry, gusty winds are likely to continue through Monday morning.

Fire and drought are part of a natural cycle in California, but scientists say climate change is making things worse. The state's temperature has been increasing significantly since the 1970s, and the amount of precipitation has been consistently below average for at least a decade.

These dry years are a recipe for fires. The little moisture that grasses and plants store up to survive will easily evaporate, turning parched vegetation into a perfect fuel for wildfire - vulnerable to a spark from a utility line or power tool, a lightning strike or a carelessly tossed cigarette.

Nationwide, wildfires are burning bigger, hotter and longer, and their effects are becoming more severe. By 2025, the U.S. Forest Service estimated, the cost of fighting fires will consume nearly 70 percent of its budget, compared with 16 percent two decades ago.

Rising fire risks are prompting major new prevention measures in California, where utility company Pacific Gas & Electric has turned to mass shutdowns in an effort to avoid sparking the next inferno. Saturday evening marked the start of a blackout that will eventually affect 38 counties, mostly in Northern California , according to a statement from the company. Central California's Kern County was slated to lose power Sunday evening, and Fresno and Madera counties are expected to lose power at some point.

In total, an estimated 965,000 customers, making up nearly 3 million people, are expected to be without power through the weekend because of fire precautions. Almost all outages had set in by Sunday afternoon. PG&E said its goal is to restore power to a "vast majority" of customers within 48 hours after the winds have died down - by Monday, it hopes.

On top of those planned outages came power loss for 100,000 customers probably as a result of infrastructure damage, company officials said. Amid wind sometimes topping 90 miles per hour, they expect far more destruction than they found inspecting their lines after the last mass shutdown.


As PG&E customers plunged into this month's third extended blackout, outages caused now-familiar disruptions for businesses and schools and spurred new concerns that some vulnerable residents who rely on power for medical care might not be prepared.Weather with high fire risk could cause another mass shutdown starting Tuesday, the company said. More than 30 counties could be affected, and notifications had gone out to half a million customers Sunday evening.

The good news, officials said, is that no shutdown is on the horizon after that.

The region has experienced two years of incredibly destructive fires. The 2017 and 2018, California fire seasons brought the deadliest blazes in state history. As residents began to receive warnings of the Kincade Fire's imminent danger, some experienced uneasy flashbacks to the infernos that decimated parts of Northern California wine country two years ago.

"All we can do is hope and pray," said evacuee Riki Sandtree said. "Stuff can be replaced, but your life is your life."