YEAR IN REVIEW 2019: year of fire and flood

In this Year in Review issue, we tackle this year’s disasters and the topic of education. Next week, look for Year in Review, Part 2: housing, crime, and the environment.

2019 was the year that many people in west county began to wonder if the paradise known as Sonoma County was all it was cracked up to be.

First there were the floods at the end of February: the Russian River crested at 45.3 feet, swamping Guerneville and other river communities and entering the history books as one of the ten most devastating floods in Sonoma County history.

In Sebastopol, the laguna, swollen by weeks of rain, rose up and flooded The Barlow shopping district, the Community Cultural Center and Park Village, Sebastopol’s very low-income housing site.

Andy_sm_Morris Street from north end 2-28-19.jpg

On Morris Street, Feb. 28, 2019

It took weeks, sometimes months, for people to dig out and dispose of the sodden ruins the waters had left behind.

Sebastopol got a suprise $1.5 million in flood relief funds from the state in July to deal with its flood losses, but along the river, state aid was slow to come. In the sparsely populated area, the number of people affected fell below that required to qualify for federal disaster relief so the county, businesses and private property owners were left to pick up the tab.

Then in early May, before people’s basements had even dried out along the river, Cal Fire declared the beginning of fire season in Sonoma County.

As the long, sweltering months of summer ticked by without any notable fires, there were press reports about what a light fire season we were having.

But then the hot, dry days kept coming, and by October the landscape lay parched and primed, like kindling awaiting a spark. That spark arrived on the evening of Oct. 23 in the hills above Alexander Valley, and over the next two weeks, the Kincade Fire burned over 77,758 acres, blackening hillsides and incinerating homes from Geyserville to the eastern edge of Windsor, becoming the largest fire in Sonoma County history. It even threatened to reburn several neighborhoods in north Santa Rosa that had already been destroyed in the Tubbs Fire two years before.

Kincade Fire tips over the hill above a vineyard in Alexander Valley

Kincade Fire tips over the hill above a vineyard in Alexander Valley

Fire models warned that sparks carried by the gusty Diablo winds from the northeast could blow the fire into the western foothills, so by Oct. 26, all of west county from the edge of Santa Rosa to Bodega Bay— home to roughly 43,000 people — was under a mandatory evacuation order.

The evacuation order for Sebastopol and west county was lifted on Nov. 1, and people streamed back to their homes, grateful they had homes to return to.

It’s an ­ill wind that blows no one any good, however. In the county election on Nov. 5, the day before the last flames of the Kincade Fire were extinguished, three local fire districts — Gold Ridge, Graton and Occidental — had parcel taxes on the ballot. With the memory of the fire fresh in everyone’s mind and firefighters the heroes of the day, the parcel tax measures  swept to victory, clearing the way to hire professional firefighters in two previously all-volunteer fire departments (Graton and Occidental).

See our stories on these topics:

Flood Stories:

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