Flames licking at Oakmont, Bennett Valley
By GUY KOVNER, JULIE JOHNSON, RANDI ROSSMANN and MARY CALLAHAN
Uncontrolled wildfires burned in Santa Rosa and across Sonoma County for a second day Tuesday, adding to a deadly natural disaster that continued to outflank firefighters and menace rural and urban residents, with conditions expected to deteriorate again today.
The fires extended existing evacuation orders covering 20,000 people and prompted new directives into Tuesday night, when flames threatened Oakmont on three sides and nipped at the eastern edges of Santa Rosa in Bennett Valley and along Highway 12.
With the heavy smoke lifting and breezes increasing Tuesday evening, the new flare-ups were a distressing sign of flames potentially extending into another heavily populated area of the city. Winds are forecast to pick up further and shift through today and Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.
The largest of the blazes, the Tubbs fire, was threatening at least 16,000 homes, authorities said.
“We’re not taking any chances. We don’t know what the wind is going to do,” said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who is helping manage the Tubbs fire, which had burned 28,000 acres. “We’re concerned for sure.”
The causes of the fires were undetermined Tuesday.
Evacuations launched late Tuesday by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office included residents near Bennett Valley Golf Course, greater Montgomery Village and north of Geyserville along Ida Clayton Road.
Orders were also issued for the wooded Annadel Heights area, bordered to the north by Parktrail Drive and to the west by Summerfield Road. To the east, fire continues to burn in 5,000-acre Trione-Annadel State Park, which divides Annadel Heights from Oakmont.
The local death toll rose to 16 on Tuesday, including 11 fatalities in the Tubbs fire. Three deaths were confirmed in the inferno that burned through Redwood Valley in Mendocino County and two occurred in Napa County.
Together, wildland blazes in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties have burned 90,000 acres since late Sunday
Officials stressed that Sonoma County fires were uncontained and presented a serious risk to public safety in the coming days, with pockets of flame burning within the existing perimeters and new fronts pushing outward from the foothills of Windsor in the north to rugged terrain overlooking Sonoma Valley further south.
“That’s really discouraging to hear,” Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said during Tuesday’s board meeting. More than 24 hours after the Tubbs fire broke out in Calistoga and stormed across the Napa-Sonoma border into Santa Rosa, firefighters were scrambling to catch up.
It’s “really kind of horrifying,” Zane said. “There really aren’t enough words to explain the type of grief in our community right now.”
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, noted the unprecedented scope of the fires burning across the region.
“We have never been taxed by a natural disaster to the extent we are being taxed now,” he told an audience of about 600 people Tuesday night at Santa Rosa High School.
Fires across the region have destroyed up to 3,000 structures, according to Cal Fire.
Most of those losses occurred in the firestorm early Monday in the neighborhoods of northwest Santa Rosa, in Coffey Park, and to the east across Highway 101 in the Mark West-Larkfield area and the hilly, upscale subdivisions of Fountaingrove.
Added to that official list Tuesday were 75 homes lost along Bennett Ridge in east Santa Rosa, where residents walked their hillside neighborhood and compiled their own grim survey of the damage — more than 20 homes on Rollo Road, 20 on Bardy Road, 25 on Bennett Ridge and nine on Old Bennett Ridge
Surviving homes totaled about 35, according to the residents’ tally.
“Lost. Lost. Lost. Lost. All these houses are just burned to the ground,” said Rollo Road resident Matt Jennings.
Trouble flared again late Monday — and reared in the same area late Tuesday — in eastern Santa Rosa, when the Nuns fire, centered in Sonoma Valley, ignited a rugged wooded canyon along White Oak Drive in the exclusive Wild Oak subdivision above Oakmont, threatening more than a dozen luxury homes.
The first Santa Rosa firefighters arrived at 10:43 p.m. Monday and quickly called for backup after seeing not only scrub brush burning but also manzanita and fir trees exploding, said Capt. Mike Harrison.
The winds were nowhere near like those that whipped the deadly Tubbs fire across the northern end of Santa Rosa, but they were stiff enough to make firefighters concerned about being so far up a narrow, dead-end road covered by trees, he said.
Three hours of work by the crews, including Sebastopol firefighters, kept the fire away from the homes.
“It’s good that we got here in time to make a difference,” Harrison said.
Thankful residents in the area included Valerie Stamps, mother of world-class runner and Santa Rosa native Julia Stamps Mallon. She walked up the driveway and thanked the firefighters for saving her daughter’s home.
“I am so impossibly grateful to them,” Valerie Stamps said.
But fire officials also faced continued questions over their deployment of resources, especially the limited use of air tankers to fight the Sonoma County blazes.
“Where are the f---ing fire aircraft?” Ryan Wilber, a Santa Rosa criminal defense attorney wrote on Facebook Tuesday. “No one has heard or seen them.”
Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said at a media briefing Tuesday that “we have access to almost every aviation and firefighting aviation asset in the country right now.”
On Monday, aircraft dropped a record 266,000 gallons of fire retardant on 45 missions on fires in Napa and Sonoma counties, Pimlott said.
Cal Fire spokeswoman Amy Head noted that helicopter water drops occurred Tuesday in low-visibility conditions that prevented missons by fixed-wing aircraft.
Air tankers “are just one tool in our toolbox,” she said.
“When we had the opportunity to fly the aircraft, we flew them,” said Richard Cordova, a Cal Fire spokesman.
Authorities late Tuesday released new information on the 11 Sonoma County deaths, all in the Tubbs fire. One person died on rural Mountain Home Ranch Drive in the hills off Petrified Forest Road leading into Calistoga, close to where the fire started just north of town.
Three people died in a rural hillside community along Mark West Springs Road — on Crystal Court and on Sundown Trail off Riebli Road.
In Larkfield, authorities confirmed two deaths on Angela Drive, two on Mark West Springs Road and one on Wikiup Bridge Way.
Two people were found dead in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, one on Coffey Lane and another person on Hemlock Street.
The identities of the victims were not released.
Fifty-seven of the 240 people reported missing as of Tuesday have been located, and some of the missing are expected not to have survived the fire, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said. Deputies and Cal Fire personnel are slowly inspecting damaged and destroyed homes.
There have been no arrests for looting and only a few unconfirmed reports, Giordano said.
Sonoma County fire officials estimate 28,000 people — representing 7,300 families — live in the fire-affected areas, according to Andrew Parsons, the county’s assistant fire marshal.
Among the 36 county shelters open Tuesday evening, about 3,900 people were seeking refuge. The shelters had capacity for more than 6,800.
About 50,000 customers remained without power Tuesday. Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital’s emergency department has treated approximately 100 people since the wildfires began, including 14 who were burned. Most patients came in with respiratory issues, including difficulty breathing, asthma and throat irritation, and about 15 percent were admitted to the hospital, spokeswoman Vanessa deGier said.
Petaluma Valley Hospital treated about 35 patients in its emergency department, most of them with mild to moderate injuries such as shortness of breath, dizziness, asthma and smoke inhalation.
Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Santa Rosa hospitals both remained closed, with no immediate plans to reopen.
“The fire has to be contained, and then local county resources have to tell us that we can come back online,” said Dr. Joshua Weil, assistant physician-in-chief for hospital operations at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center. “We have to bring PG&E back online for electricity, we have to bring water back online and then we begin the process of testing and confirming systems, and once that happens, probably somewhere in the area of 48 hours.”
Giordano on Tuesday morning described a massive response from law enforcement throughout the Bay Area, saying some 500 officers had come to help. The San Francisco Police Department had 100 people in the Sheriff’s Office building at 8 a.m. Monday, Giordano said.
“Alameda (County) brought 150 yesterday. We had to turn them away, because we had too many at the time, believe it or not,” he said.
The massive property losses have impacted Sonoma County’s workforce, including up to 20 sheriff’s deputies who have lost their homes. All are still working, the sheriff said.
The losses may extend to Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents Sonoma Valley and eastern Santa Rosa. She said she suspected her home was destroyed.
“Every part of my district has been affected,” Gorin said.
Flames cropped up in a variety of places Tuesday, sending firefighting teams in numerous directions, including back to the neighborhoods of Coffey Park and Fountaingrove that were devastated during Monday’s morning firestorm. Fire still was still burning at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, one of numerous businesses and landmarks destroyed in Santa Rosa.
Flare-ups were expected to continue in burned-over areas and pockets of unburned homes, Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox said.
In the hills above Windsor, a fire that had burned in the Shiloh Park area also kicked up, and evacuations were ordered in the area of Montebello Road and the south side of Shiloh Ranch Regional Park.
The evacuated area in Santa Rosa stretched from Fulton Road east to Montecito Boulevard and from Mark West Springs Road south to Steele Lane and Chanate Road, plus the Oakmont area along Highway 12.
Everyday life throughout the county has been staggered, stalled and permanently transformed.
Campuses in the vast majority of Sonoma County school districts, including Santa Rosa, Cotati-Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Windsor, Healdsburg, West Sonoma County schools have been shuttered since Monday.
All athletic contests in the North Bay and Sonoma County leagues have been canceled this week.
Two cultural events on Saturday, and theater performances were also canceled through the weekend.
“First, and most importantly, is the safety of our student-athletes and coaches, as well as the entire communities in which they reside,” NBL Commissioner Jan Smith-Billing said in a statement Tuesday. “The air quality is terrible and it would be unsafe to have anyone doing anything outside.”
Staff Writers Kevin McCallum and J.D. Morris contributed reporting.