Evacuation Orders Rapidly Expand in California as Wildfires Spread in Historic Windstorm

(The Washington Post) —
california wildfires evactuations
Flames from the Kincade Fire consume Soda Rock Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., Sunday. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

One of the largest evacuations in Sonoma County memory was underway Sunday morning 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 has spread to 30,000 acres and was only 10 percent contained. 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.

In a flurry of early morning 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.

The sheriff’s office also issued a dire alert telling residents farther north of Santa Rosa to leave.

“The wind is really starting to pick up, as is the fire activity. If you are still in this mandatory evacuation area you need to leave now while you still can,” the sheriff’s office said.

The new orders dramatically expand the number of residents who will have to flee the growing fires and could further tax emergency workers tasked with helping them seek safety. Roughly 175,000 people live in Santa Rosa.

A caravan of cars made their way southbound on the 101 freeway Sunday morning as residents heeded the warning.

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.

A windstorm was expected to pummel the region throughout the morning, creating historic fire weather conditions, according to the National Weather Service.

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.

“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 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. 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.

The Kincade fire outside Healdsburg, California, appeared to be rapidly intensifying, according to the service, which posted satellite imagery of the blaze.

Flames from the Kincade Fire, which was sparked Wednesday night, could be seen stretching hundreds of feet above the treetops, according to the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose University.

Officials, residents and emergency workers have spent the weekend bracing for the abrupt wind change, which came on almost exactly as forecasters expected. The fierce gusts, coupled with low humidity, could feed existing fires or ignite new blazes by knocking over electrical equipment or carrying embers into areas the flames haven’t yet touched. Any fires that do crop up will probably spread rapidly, the National Weather Service said.

Concerns about the fire expanding led Pacific Gas & Electric to conduct a massive power shutdown Saturday evening that will probably mark the largest planned outage in the state’s history. The blackouts, which will affect 38 counties in all, began in Northern California around 5 p.m. local time Saturday and cascaded south through the state throughout the evening, according to a statement from the company. Central California’s Kern County was slated to lose power at 9 p.m. Sunday. Fresno and Madera counties also are expected to lose power at some point, but PG&E hasn’t said when.

In total, an estimated 940,000 customers, making up about 2.8 million people, are expected to be without power through the weekend. PG&E said its goal is to restore power to a “vast majority” of customers within 48 hours after the winds have died down.

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.

The bigger, more intense fires are part of a clear pattern in which blazes are more frequent and stretch across a longer season. And, according to CalFire, “climate change is considered a key driver of this trend.” Population growth and the increase in homes and businesses located near lands that typically burn are also escalating the risk of and damage from wildfires in the Golden State.

california wildfires evactuations
Stars can be seen in the sky as electricity is turned off in a neighborhood in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Saturday. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/East Bay Times via AP)
california wildfires evactuations
Street lights have no electricity during a PG&E outage in Lafayette, Calif., Saturday. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/East Bay Times via AP)
california wildfires evactuations
Henry Provencher, 87, is wheeled out of , a residential care facility during evacuations due to the Kincade Fire in Santa Rosa, Calif., Saturday. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope)
california wildfires evactuations
A business is closed Saturday in downtown Healdsburg. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope)
california wildfires evactuations
Inmate firefighters battle the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, Saturday. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

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