Wine Country fires burn homes, force evacuations from Santa Rosa to Napa Valley
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The Wine Country awoke in flames Monday as windblown wildfires closed in on the Napa Valley from the east and west and swept into Santa Rosa, forcing thousands of North Bay residents to flee their homes in an ominous flashback to the catastrophic infernos three years ago.
The Shady and Glass fires, which erupted Sunday morning and spread quickly through extremely dry grasslands, were simultaneously threatening parts of Sonoma and Napa counties. The winds also whipped up the massive North Complex Fire, threatening the Butte County town of Paradise and several other northern Sierra Nevada foothill communities devastated by the deadly Camp Fire in 2018.
Multiple homes burned overnight in the large Skyhawk neighborhood in eastern Santa Rosa as emergency workers in adjacent neighborhoods went door to door evacuating residents. The fast-moving flames jumped Highway 12 in Oakmont, forcing emergency workers to evacuate a large senior community by bus as flames shot up over nearby hills.
Most of Calistoga, the small Napa Valley city known for its hot springs, mud baths and wine, was evacuated.
By daybreak Monday, 11,300 people were under evacuation orders in Santa Rosa and several neighborhoods on the eastern edge of the city. The evacuations extended to Mark West and into Rincon Valley, nearly to the Fountaingrove neighborhood that was ravaged by fire three years ago. The orders stretched south of Annadel State Park, down nearly to Glen Ellen, and included areas around Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.
The main evacuation center in Santa Rosa was closed out of an “abundance of caution” as flames pressed in on the city, according to Sonoma County officials.
The 4,500-resident Oakmont senior community was evacuated, along with surrounding areas along Highway 12, the main road linking the city to the Sonoma Valley. Residents in the Kenwood area were ordered to evacuate just after midnight.
The areas most threatened overnight were all close to or directly affected by the October 2017 Wine Country wildfires that burned entire neighborhoods in and around Santa Rosa. One of those fires, the Tubbs Fire, was the second-most destructive wildfire in California history.
Brian Borgfeldt, 65, was chased from his Kenwood home three years ago during the Tubbs fire, which he said burned 21 homes in the area, but somehow spared his house. This time, Borgfeldt, his wife and two teenage daughters got the evacuation order around midnight, but had to wait until about 3 a.m. for a trailer to transport their two horses.
By that time, “it was coming very close,” Borgfeldt said Monday morning as he checked his family into an evacuation center at the Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building. “And already it looks like buildings burned, our neighbors and stuff.”
In Butte County, the month-old North Complex fire picked up amid dry, powerful winds, prompting an evacuation warning for the entire town of Paradise and the community of Magalia, along with an evacuation order for Concow. All three places were devastated by the November 2018 Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire.
“It really is horrifying to see this happening…again,” tweeted climate scientist Daniel Swain. “Winds tonight are not expected to be as extreme as during Oct. 2017 North Bay (Tubbs) firestorm, but this does not look good.”
Residents of the senior community of Oakmont Village were evacuated on Santa Rosa city buses at 12:30 a.m., many of them using walkers or canes, or being pushed in wheelchairs. One woman in a purple robe had a black shirt on a hanger clinging to her walker. Another woman wore flowered pajamas in her wheelchair, a white teddy bear in her lap.
Towering flames shot up over a hill just across the driveway as the buses approached the winding Calistoga Road into Santa Rosa.
City buses are here taking residents from Oakmont Village, a senior living community in Santa Rosa. About 4,500 people live here. Many don’t have cars. The fire is actively burning behind them. pic.twitter.com/Jj0N14Bqe3
— Sarah Ravani (@SarRavani) September 28, 2020
After a harrowing drive to safety, during which flames licked both sides of the roadway and embers spat onto the bus windshield, Oakmont residents Doris and Armin Tietze said this had been the most stressful of the three evacuations they’ve been through in recent years.
“It was scary and I didn’t expect it to be so close,” said Doris Tietze, 91.
Patrick Ryan stayed with his home off Highway 12 near Oakmont while his wife and children evacuated. He attempted to spray down his fence with a hose as the flames approached, but soon realized it was futile.
“I wanted to see how close it’s going to get to my house this time, and you know what? I’m just about ready to leave,” Ryan said. “It is what it is. This is how we live in California now. It’s the charcoal state, not the sunshine state anymore.”
Wind gusts reached 60 miles per hour on Mount St. Helena on Sunday evening, blowing toward the southwest. By 11:30 p.m., a long line of cars with evacuating residents was seen on Montgomery Road in Santa Rosa, driving away from Annadel State Park. Sirens wailed as a red glow lit up the surrounding hills. Flames were visible from Highway 101 along the eastern edge of the city.
“I grabbed my neighbor. I wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Lorraine Fuentez, who evacuated from a senior mobile home park on Calistoga Road around 11:30 p.m. Sunday, forcing her elderly friend to come with her. Fuentez said she and her neighbor got multiple alerts to leave, and quickly grabbed their go-bags, which have been put to more use than she ever expected. She evacuated during the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which she said burned down her daughter’s house.
“We’ve come to the point that if it burns down, oh well,” Fuentez said of her own home. “It feels overwhelming. It feels like, is this ever going to end?”
The fires arrived as a dry heat wave brought high temperatures to the Bay Area through Monday. A red flag warning, signaling high fire danger, was in effect for the region until 9 p.m. Monday. A Spare the Air Alert was extended through Monday.
“Predicted critical fire weather conditions have come to fruition today,” Swain said on Twitter. He cited new fires, including the Glass Fire and the “fast-spreading Zogg Fire” in Shasta County, and also said that existing fires, including the August Complex and North Complex, “have exploded once again.” The Creek Fire in Fresno and Madera counties also grew 10,000 acres over Saturday night.
The scenario unfolding around Santa Rosa has unsettling similarities to the deadly firestorm that ravaged the area almost exactly three years ago, both in terms of weather patterns and the specific communities under threat.
Most of the major October 2017 fires that burned around Sonoma and Napa counties were started by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power lines. The Tubbs Fire was an exception: State investigators said it was started by a property owner’s privately maintained electric system.
Causes of this latest round of Wine Country wildfires are under investigation. Hoping to prevent more fires amid dangerous weather, PG&E had intentionally turned off electricity to a very limited area in Napa County and a handful of customers in Sonoma County.
Another 14,241 homes and businesses in Santa Rosa lost power likely because of fire activity, and at least 3,000 customers in Napa County lost power because of the Glass Fire, according to the company.
With flames threatening the northeast quadrant of the city, government officials chose to close an evacuation point they had set up at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building on Maple Avenue. Evacuees are instead being asked to go to the Petaluma Fairgrounds or the Sonoma Raceway.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the county did not set up the kind of large indoor shelters it used during past disasters, when dozens of people crowded onto cots and stayed overnight. Instead, people are being steered toward spaces where they can maintain social distance. Some evacuees will get hotel room vouchers, and others may be placed into dormitory rooms at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park.
The conflagrations began early Sunday morning with the Glass Fire, which started in Deer Park and had grown to 11,000 acres by Monday morning. Around 7:30 p.m. Sunday, two other blazes — the Shady and Boysen fires — were reported west of St. Helena.
The Glass Fire threatened thousands of structures along the east side of the Silverado Trail and prompted numerous evacuations throughout Sunday, including of the local hospital and the high-end Meadowood Napa Valley resort.
Photos on social media by Getty Images showed the Chateau Boswell Winery, about three miles north of St. Helena, engulfed in flames. The Black Rock Inn in St. Helena also burned.
By 2 a.m. Monday the hillsides east and west of St. Helena were consumed by fire. Flames leaped dozens of feet into the air, and pine trees exploded as crews tried to keep the fire from crossing the Silverado Trail.
Less than a mile from the front line, a handful of neighbors along Lodi Lane sat in lawn chairs in their driveways around 2:30 a.m. They waited, with cars packed, as they sipped beer and fretted over when to evacuate.
Lidia Gonzalez, a lifelong resident of St. Helena, said she and her family had loaded camping gear and family photos so they could leave at a moment’s notice. She said she struggled to fathom the extent of damage.
“My whole life is here,” she said. “I don’t think it’s quite hit. We’re just going into autopilot.”
Earlier in the night, swift wind gusts blew embers that ignited a nearby field. Neighbors used shovels and bags of water to extinguish the blaze.
Throughout the night, as the fire raged closer, hundreds of cars filled the roads leaving Napa Valley. Some drivers pulled over on the side of the road, to sleep or watch the flames.
Kenneth Kentan, the night manager of a nearby Safeway, stopped to get a look at the fire after he finished his shift. He had spent the night rushing to salvage meat and dairy items after the store lost power.
“It fits right in with this year,” said Kentan, watching the fire approach from two directions. “It’s devastating.”
Yet another instance of a nighttime fire where extreme rates of forward spread are outpacing official evacuation orders. Starting to remind of Oct. 2017. If you are on eastern side of Santa Rosa, I’d be prepared to leave in a matter of hours. #CAwx #CAfire #ShadyFire /#BoysenFire https://t.co/T3zOhXV1KM
— Daniel Swain (@Weather_West) September 28, 2020
Large areas surrounding St. Helena were under evacuation orders, on the east side up to Deer Park and Angwin, and on the west all the way to the Sonoma County line and the outskirts of Santa Rosa. The orders stretched south to Whitehall Lane and north to Bothe-Napa Valley State Park.
The Glass Fire started before 4 a.m., on the east side of the vineyard-lined Silverado Trail between St. Helena and Calistoga, about 8 miles west of the Hennessey Fire, which became the LNU Lightning Complex Fire that reached Vacaville. It was pushed by shifting winds, with gusts up to 70 mph Sunday morning on Mount St. Helena.
St. Helena residents were asked to conserve water, as the fire was near a reservoir and treatment plant.
Tracy Sherman walked out her front door in St. Helena around 5 a.m. and smelled smoke.
“I thought, ‘This can’t be happening again,’” she said, but by the time she arrived to work at Sunshine Foods, she saw that it had. Three hours before opening, the parking lot was filling up with evacuees from Deer Park, three miles away. Sherman and colleagues brought them complimentary coffee and breakfast.
“Yesterday the skies were beautiful, and today people woke up to being evacuated again,” she said. “There was sadness and shock. But we came together as a community.”
This time of year, the air in Napa County can be saturated with the smell of wine as wineries prepare for harvest and host tourists.
“But, lately, it’s been smoke or nothing,” said Amy Bourdeau as she watched a column of fire sprout over the top of a hill along Silverado Trail.
Bourdeau woke up Sunday to fire alerts and Facebook messages from friends concerned about the fire burning near her home in Calistoga. She said she still hadn’t unpacked the go-bag she used when evacuating from the LNU Lightning Complex. Fires have forced her from her home every year since 2017, Bourdeau said.
“It’s a bit traumatizing,” she said. “I feel like I’m constantly fight-or-flight.”
Chronicle staff writers Dustin Gardiner, Tatiana Sanchez, Michael Williams, Rusty Simmons, Sam Whiting, Kate Galbraith and Kellie Hwang contributed to this report.
Sarah Ravani, Matthias Gafni, J.D. Morris and Erin Allday are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] Twitter: @SarRavani, @mgafni, @thejdmorris, @erinallday