• Mon. Jan 25th, 2021

Bay Area wildfires: Firefighters fear dry lightning, erratic winds could drive blazes – The Mercury News

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Firefighters throughout Northern California raced to get a better grip on the massive wildfires burning around the Bay Area on Sunday. But the predicted evening arrival of erratic winds and dry lightning  threatened to spark new blazes, and propel the massive existing fires on multiple fronts, toward homes and communities across much of Northern California.

Forecasters warn the dangerous weather that arrived Sunday evening, a remnant of a hurricane that hit the coast of Baja California, will be much like the line of thunderstorms that sparked California’s current wildfire crisis a week ago. It was the latest way that weather conditions have confounded efforts of fire crews in the Bay Area, who had just started to make progress containing the three major fire complexes burning in the region.

“We make a gain in one place and we have a loss in another,” said Chad Costa, a battalion chief with the Petaluma Fire Department charged with holding a nine-mile line to keep the Walbridge Fire in Sonoma County from sweeping into Healdsburg.

The storm system’s winds from the southwest threatened to push the Walbridge Fire down from the coastal mountains and into more densely populated areas of Sonoma County, including Healdsburg and Geyserville, prompting evacuations west of Highway 101. Elsewhere in the North Bay, authorities worried those winds would expand the massive Hennessey Fire across vast stretches of territory north of Lake Berryessa.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, wind-driven fire threatened to over take the communities of Bonny Doon, Boulder Creek and Ben Lomond, whicht have been under assault from the CZU Complex Fire for days. Crews were also preparing for the potential of a devastating run down the San Lorenzo Valley, setting up three fire lines meant to protect Felton, UC Santa Cruz and the city beyond it.

And in the South Bay, authorities ordered new evacuations Sunday in southern Santa Clara County as the SCU Complex continued to burn in the mountains east of Morgan Hill and Gilroy.

Over the past week, firefighters have faced one challenge after another in containing the blazes — winds that pushed flames in unpredictable directions, rugged and hard to access terrain, heavy smoke that limited air support and, most crucially, a shortage of firefighters with nearly two-dozen major blazes burning all throughout California.

Costa said he had about 20 hose crews for those nine miles west of Healdsburg. In a normal scenario, one in which fires weren’t burning all over the state, there might be 20 crews on each mile of the fire line.

“All you can do is save as much as you can,” Costa said. “We’re trying to keep the fire within our box.”

Normally, when forecasts call for red flag warnings and other dangerous fire weather, departments staff extra engines and have crews ready to deploy to quickly knock down fires, said Daniel Potter, a Cal Fire CZU spokesman. Cal Fire’s stated goal is to put out 90 percent of fires before they grow to 10 acres.

But that’s not an option when you’re already pouring everything you’ve got into fighting massive fires threatening tens of thousands of homes.

“We’re maxed (out) on equipment that we can cover with our staffing,” Potter said. “Pretty much every hand crew we have available has been deployed.”

Some took a more optimistic view — the active fires mean hundreds more firefighters are in the area than might be there under normal conditions.

“The fortunate thing is we have everybody in place already,” said Fire Chief Rebecca Ramirez of the Yocha Dehe Fire Department, which serves tribal land belonging to the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, as well as the broader Capay Valley and Yolo County. “So if we had new lightning strikes, we have crews all over the place that can quickly respond.”

Calm wind and cooler temperatures in the early part of Sunday helped crews working the CZU Complex Fire limit its spread into Boulder Creek, while clearer skies allowed for water drops and other air support to protect Bonny Doon. Despite the progress, authorities announced the grim news Sunday night that a person was found dead at a home along Last Chance Road outside Davenport. The person, whose remains were recovered Sunday, is the first fatality in the fire. Four more people have been reported missing, according to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.

And still, more houses were going up in flames even before the more intense fire weather arrived; officials said 163 structures have been destroyed, as of Sunday evening.

Flames were encroaching on Boulder Creek from the west and the north, tongues of wildfire flaring down from the main body of the blaze and torching homes within a few hundred yards of the historic downtown strip along Highway 9. The situation for Boulder Creek and the towns south of it along the San Lorenzo Valley on Sunday was “critical” and fire crews were racing against time, said Battalion Chief Rich Durrell, leading a California Office of Emergency Services strike team in Boulder Creek.

While in previous days fire crews took a defensive approach, playing “whack-a-mole” to save homes as the fire erupted in one area after another, and ensuring residents got out, Durrell said, “We’re more offensive than defensive today.”

Boulder Creek resident Gordon Rudy had evacuated to his boat in the Santa Cruz Harbor, but snuck back to his home just above town because of a premonition, he said. “I woke up at 1 a.m. and I drove here,” said Rudy, 61, a real estate agent. Flames reached to within 100 feet of his wooden house, built in 1937 and used as a vacation home by original Oakland Raiders owner Wayne Valley. But fire crews put them out. “I’m very relieved,” Rudy said.

Saturday night was fairly quiet in Sonoma County, and firefighters succeeded in keeping the Walbridge Fire — part of the the LNU Lightning Complex from making any significant new pushes toward Healdsburg, CalFire officials reported Sunday, and did the same with the Hennessey Fire to the east. High on a ridge west of the town, two inmate work crews marched out of the brush about 4:30 p.m., many of the men collapsing to the ground after working on the fire line most of the day with hand tools.

Because of the coronavirus and early release programs, the number of crews and the size of them are down as California faces the worst fire crisis in its history, said Calfire Capt.Tim Erinse, a crew commander. Crews normally have 27 members, he said, a number that has now dropped to 24.

Nearby Kelly Dicke looked out from Chamise Road across a ridge line where smoke rose into the air. The home where she’s lived for 30 years -“a 120-year-old logging shack” was below under a canopy of trees. Each night for nearly a week, she said she’s assumed it would be lost.

“Every evening you go, “she’s gone,’ but it isn’t.”

On the eastern side of Lake Berryessa, most members of Ramirez’s 33-person fire department are taking turns rotating on and off the fire line, building a decent containment line on their side of the ridge, and few structures have been lost on tribal land, Ramirez said.

Still, Ramirez said the lightning expected to arrive late Sunday was her top concern.

“We’re all very wary because we are spread so thin right now,” she said.