According to the LA Times, 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 Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and officials are readying more crews in Southern California, where red flag warnings are in place through Sunday.
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.