Firefighters Eye Containment of Deadly Blazes as Some Evacuations Lift

by | October 16, 2017

By Tara Duggan, J.K. Dineen, Trisha Thadani and Kevin Fagan

One week after a storm of wildfires ignited in California’s Wine Country, firefighters on Sunday were finally eyeing an end to the deadly siege as winds settled down and the unrelenting infernos weakened enough for some people in endangered areas to return home.

Underscoring the progress, authorities in Napa County lifted all evacuation orders in Calistoga in the afternoon. State officials predicted they would fully contain, or surround, every active blaze in Sonoma County by Friday, and the region was even due for a bit of badly needed rain at the end of the week.

A Kaiser Permanente hospital in Santa Rosa that was hurriedly evacuated in the first hours of the crisis planned to partially reopen Monday morning, allowing for appointments, walk-in care and pharmacy pickups. Meanwhile, some schools in the North Bay and beyond that closed last week due to heavy smoke will welcome children back.

“Things feel good in our gut as firefighters,” Bret Gouvea, a Cal Fire deputy chief, said Sunday afternoon at a news conference in Santa Rosa.

But even as crews gained leverage in the sprawling burn areas, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties still had the feel of disaster zones — with many roads closed and highway signs offering information on the nearest emergency shelter.

Authorities continued to identify the dead and search for the missing, and according to the latest tally, at least 40 people were killed in the worst week for wildfires in state history. In Sonoma County, authorities had received 1,734 missing-person reports since the swarm of fires erupted Oct. 8. As of Sunday, 174 people remained unaccounted for, but county Sheriff Rob Giordano stressed that many of the reports did not involve people likely killed by the fires.

The 45,000-acre Tubbs Fire, which killed at least 18 people as it raced from Calistoga into northern Santa Rosa, continued to burn most intensely Sunday on its northeastern border. But it was no longer threatening the tourist-magnet town of Calistoga in Napa County, officials said. It was 60 percent contained.

The largest of the past week’s blazes, the 51,000-acre Atlas Fire that destroyed homes and wineries near the Silverado Resort and Spa northeast of the city of Napa, was 65 percent contained.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’ve made tremendous progress out there,” said Chief Barry Biermann, Cal Fire’s deputy incident commander in Napa.

Erratic winds that had been whipping up the fires all week began to wane on Sunday, and humidity rose. The National Weather Service had issued a number of red-flag warnings — meaning weather conditions were critical — since the fires broke, but forecasters canceled those warnings Sunday morning.

The winds were expected to slow to as weak as 5 mph, the lightest in a week in the devastated areas. Wind speeds the night the fires exploded were clocked at up to 80 mph at higher elevations. Looking ahead, the first winter storm of the season is expected to bring rain by Thursday to the Bay Area, National Weather Service forecasters said.

Shortly after the evacuation order was lifted, many stores in downtown Calistoga were still dark Sunday. But there was one with its lights on: the local grocery store, Cal Mart.

“We’re back in business,” said owner Bill Shaw as his girlfriend, Julie Ward, helped restock shelves with loaves of bread. “We’re grateful to be back for the community.”

Shaw was allowed back in Calistoga a little earlier than residents, so he could start getting the store ready for customers who were told to pack their bags and hit Highway 29 on Wednesday.

“We’re not fully stocked yet,” Shaw said. “But we’ll have shipments coming in through the week.”

Only an hour after the evacuation was lifted, customers were trickling in with intentions to restock their cupboards and pantries and refrigerators. Light flurries of ash flakes still fell on the town’s spas, gourmet restaurants and quiet neighborhoods.

In addition to Calistoga’s welcome news, all evacuation advisories for the city of Napa were lifted Sunday. Still, many places remained blocked off.

Of the fires burning in Wine Country, a 49,000-acre conflagration straddling Sonoma and Napa counties north of Glen Ellen — which contained about a half-dozen fires, including the Nuns Fire, that merged together — was receiving the bulk of the attention Sunday, according to firefighting officials. It was 40 percent contained.

“The Nuns Fire is the top priority for us today,” said Biermann, the commander.

Chief among his concerns was protection of Oakmont Village, a big retirement community surrounded by lawn bowling courts, golf courses and highly flammable forests along Highway 12 outside Santa Rosa.

According to Cal Fire, the south edge of that fire was holding along the highway, but flames were expanding east and north across Hood Mountain Regional Park toward the Napa side of the hills. There are some homes tucked into the hills of that endangered region.

Neighborhoods between Santa Rosa’s Rincon Valley and the winemaking town of Kenwood to the east were eerily quiet Sunday as residents continued to heed mandatory evacuation orders as a result of the big blaze that included the Nuns Fire.

That is, everyone except John Stewart, who was watering trees across the street from his still-standing house on the main thoroughfare, Highway 12.

“I guess there was an evacuation,” he joked. “I must have been taking a nap at the time.”

Stewart had stayed behind, hoping he could save his home. He remained despite a lack of power for five days. On Friday, at about 10 p.m., the lights came back on.

His wife, a nurse, had decided to stay in a hotel, and he was hoping she could return home Sunday. But it didn’t look like the all clear was coming anytime soon.

Among the many parts of the fire zone where the danger was still acute was a key flank of the Nuns Fire, which continued to threaten neighborhoods east of Sonoma’s famed downtown square. Power remained out on the east side of the square, which contains the historic Mission San Francisco Solano, after the fire burned several homes on Saturday.

Late Saturday and early Sunday, firefighters prevented the flames from overtaking more homes, officials said.

The morning sky over downtown Sonoma was largely blue, and despite the faint haze and ubiquitous smell of smoke, birds were singing. Much of the eastern part of the city, including its hills where luxury homes come with breathtaking views, remained under evacuation as fire crews continued to tamp down the remaining blazes. Many burned homes and fields were still smoldering.

Tom and Sandy Peterson, who have lived in Sonoma for 21 years, strolled down Fourth Street East, Tom clutching an iced coffee from Cafe Scooteria in one hand and clothing in another. The police had just let them walk to their nearby house, which was evacuated Tuesday evening, to turn off their water and check on the neighbors’ chickens.

“It’s eerie,” Tom said. “There’s just no one here.”

Added Sandy: “It has been kind of a hellish week. Everyone in Sonoma is ready for this to end.”

Firefighters conducted inspections on properties near the fire line, house by house and yard by yard, using neon pink tape to mark address signs outside homes that had been checked out.

To the north, in Mendocino County, officials began allowing residents evacuated from the 35,000-acre Redwood Valley Fire to return home for the first time since flames burned through. At least eight people were killed in the blaze that was 35 percent contained on Sunday.

And in Solano County, officials on Sunday lifted evacuation orders for the areas around Fairfield that had been threatened by the Atlas Fire.

Crews with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. continued restoring electricity and gas service to thousands of people affected by the fires. An estimated 310,000 customers lost power when the fires broke out, but by Sunday power had been restored to more than 92 percent of them.

Throughout the state, Cal Fire officials said crews made “good progress” overnight on 15 wildfires burning from one end of the state to the other. The fires of the past week have burned more than 200,000 acres and an estimated 5,700 homes, businesses and other structures. Tens of thousands of people remain evacuated.

San Francisco Chronicle