As the death toll rose to 40, firefighters struggled Saturday to get the upper hand against several massive wildfires that have ravaged Northern California for almost a week.
Strong winds kicked up overnight in the central Napa Valley region, causing some fires to spread and triggering evacuations in Sonoma and elsewhere, officials said.
Fire officials feared that winds forecast for Saturday would be similar to those that stoked the first flames on Oct. 8 and that have since exploded to more than 15 fires that have scorched 220,000 acres, destroyed an estimated 5,700 structures and caused at least 40 deaths.
Despite low humidity and red flag warnings throughout the region, however, the winds appeared to calm down Saturday afternoon, aiding firefighters who have been battling the fire around the clock, officials said.
Officials warned that the biggest threat remains the low humidity, with the dry air continuing to transform grass and vegetation into fuel.
“It’s been drying out the mountains,” said National Weather Service forecaster Steve Anderson. “It’s still going to be bone-dry out there overnight.”
Northerly winds, similar to Southern California’s Santa Ana winds, are expected to move across the region at about 15 mph overnight with some 25 mph gusts, he said. Temperatures are expected to drop into the mid-40s overnight, with temperatures expected to hover in the mid-80s Sunday.
More than 10,000 firefighters from California and other states are fighting the fires in Northern California, said Dave Teter of the California Dpeartment of Forestry and Fire Protection, and officials are readying more crews in Southern California, where red flag warnings are in place through Sunday.
Firefighting efforts include 880 fire engines, 134 bulldozers, 224 hand crews and 138 water tenders, Teter said. At first light Saturday, 14 helicopters were in the air conducting water drops.
During a night of strong winds, the 46,000-acre Nuns fire in Sonoma County grew by at least 300 acres, threatening the outskirts of the city of Sonoma and the Oakmont neighborhood in Santa Rosa. It was 10% contained as of Saturday, and had destroyed some buildings in the city of Sonoma.
Firefighters were asleep in Healdsburg early Saturday morning when they got the call around 3:30 a.m.: Get over to the Oakmont neighborhood of Santa Rosa.
High winds had sent the Nuns fire branching toward the city, which had already been devastated by the Tubbs fire earlier in the week. Another branch was heading toward the city of Sonoma.
When firefighters arrived, police were helping to evacuate the area.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many cop cars Code 3,” CalFire spokesman Jeff Allen said, meaning they were flashing their lights and blaring their sirens.
The firefighters headed up the ridge in the darkness, trying to hold the flames at bay with hoses and shovels. When the sun came up, air tankers and helicopters started dropping fire retardant and water. Bulldozers cut through the earth to create fire breaks and firefighters set backfires to slow the blaze’s advance.
They were helped by the weather as winds started to slow later in the morning.
The ridge remained blanketed with smoke late Saturday morning as helicopters circled. Occasionally a tall tree would become engulfed, and flickers of flames would be briefly visible from the road.
An offshoot of the Nuns fire, which ignited early Saturday when a downed power line touched a tree branch, has grown from 300 acres to more than 400 acres in several hours near Oakmont, Cal Fire operations section chief Steve Crawford said Saturday afternoon. Flames were pushing east, and closer to Highway 12, he said.
Firefighters are also working to hold flames back from reaching the outskirts of Sonoma. The wind “has hit us pretty hard, and there’s a pretty good firefight going on in the field right now,” Crawford said. Winds have also stopped some air tankers from making water drops on flames closer to St. Helena, Crawford said.
Twenty-two people have died in the Tubbs fire in Sonoma County, eight in Mendocino County, four in Yuba County and six in Napa County.
Napa County officials identified two new victims of the Atlas fire as George Chaney, 89, and Edward Stone, 79. The two men owned a house in the 2300 block of Atlas Peak Road, where officials found their bodies Thursday, county spokeswoman Molly Rattigan said.
Much of their neighborhood was reduced to debris after the Atlas fire scorched 50,403 acres. The fire, which continued to threaten about 5,000 homes,, was 48% contained Saturday evening.
All around, the view was one of entire hillsides charred black and some wineries with nothing but brick frames and melted equipment.
Just down the road from the house where Chaney and Stone were found, one spot remained untouched by the fire: the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, a pet cemetery on Atlas Peak Road. The park was still covered in lush, bright green grass.
The sound of its babbling brook was interrupted intermittently with the sound of a firetruck or utility crew’s diesel engine powering up the mountain to extinguish hot spots or continue the arduous task of reconnecting the mountain residents’ homes to the valley city below.
On Saturday afternoon, a deer and two fawn found shady refuge under an oak tree as smoke from the Nuns fire could be seen rising from the hills on the other side of Napa Valley.
One of the wettest winters on record, followed by the hottest summer on record, has created possibly the worst potential for fire in Napa County that the state has seen, a Cal Fire spokesman said Saturday.
Experts use a scientific formula to determine the potential of a fire, called the energy release component, said Cal Fire spokesman Mike Smith. On Saturday, that potential was the worst “in recorded history,” Smith said.
Crews have not seen this amount of fuel this dry in the path of a fire in at least 26 years, he said.
“Today is going to be a much different day than you’ve experienced unless you were here” from the beginning, Tom Wright of the National Weather Service told fire crews in Napa at a Saturday morning briefing. “It’s a really critical day.”
The Atlas fire saw 35-mph winds over ridge tops Friday night, blowing to the south and southwest.
The fire is continuing a slow march north toward Lake Berryessa, Smith said. The fire spread slightly along its southern and northwestern edges overnight, officials said Saturday morning. The strongest containment lines have been built around the southern and western faces of the fire, closest to the city of Napa.