Cal Fire Battalion Chief and Geyserville Fire Chief Marshall Turbeville wasn’t the first person on the scene when the Kincade Fire first made its appearance in the eastern hills above Alexander Valley on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 23. A Napa County fire unit beat him there, but as he followed the column of smoke through the valley and up into the mountains toward the Geysers geo-thermal plant, he remembers feeling distinctly ill at ease.
Part of it was the weather — warm, 40 mph winds out of the northeast — and the steep, brushy terrain, bone dry and thick with parched, late-fall vegetation. These things, plus the low humidity, are the very definition of “fire weather,” and the National Weather Service had already declared a Red Flag Warning that day in Sonoma County.
When Turbeville arrived at the junction of Kincade Road and Burned Mountain Road, the blaze that would become known as the Kincade Fire had already incinerated several hundred acres, driven by what are sometimes called the Diablo winds, a cousin to Southern California’s better-known Santa Ana winds.
What struck Turbeville first were the embers, dancing like malevolent fireworks against the night sky.
“It had already burned down into a drainage and up the other side, and it was moving so rapidly,” he said. “We tried to hold that first ridge — that didn’t work — then the next ridge, then a fire road — and then it was off.
“Basically all the tactics we tried to do — dozers on the edge of the fire, burning back the vegetation, trying to put the fire out, it didn’t matter. Every ember from a tree would land on grass and start a new fire.”
What amazed him was the way the fire weaponized the landscape, turning pine cones into incendiary devices that spit burning pitch as they rolled down hills, dripping fire into the dry grass.
Over the next few hours, his team moved quickly through three distinct phases of firefighting: from attempting to stop the fire to attempting to protect structures and finally to evacuation.
On that first night, the Sheriff’s Office issued the two mandatory evacuation orders for areas east of Geyserville, first at 10:34 p.m. and again at 12:23 a.m. A third evacuation order was placed on Geyserville just before 6:30 a.m. on Thursday.
By Thursday night, the Kincade Fire had devoured 16,000 acres, and it was just getting started.
Getting ready for the big one
Two years ago in October, the Tubbs Fire began in a similar fashion. Kindled in the mountains and blown westward by the same fierce winds, it raced through tinder-dry forests then roared down into northern Santa Rosa, destroying 5,643 structures and killing 22 people.
Since then the county and local fire agencies have been working feverishly to ensure that a fire like the Tubbs Fire can’t happen again — or if it does, that it won’t have the same results.
The Kincade Fire, which at 77,000 acres is more than double the size of the Tubbs Fire, is the first test of those efforts — and thus far, they seem to have been successful. Despite the size of the fire, far fewer structures have been destroyed (282, half of those homes), and there have been no deaths or missing person reports.
Local fire chiefs point to three significant changes that have been made over the last two years, including the following:
• Ambitious “upstaffing” on Red Flag Warning days and the “pre-positioning” of fire response teams in areas of highest fire danger.
• Better coordination and communication between different fire agencies.
• A commitment to early, mass evacuations, which allowed firemen to concentrate on fighting the fire.
What is “upstaffing” and “pre-positioning”?
Before Turbeville followed that column of smoke up the mountain road — before there was even a spark in the dry grass — fire chiefs in Sonoma County knew that the National Weather Service was going to declare a Red Flag Warning for Wednesday, and they were busy lining up the personnel and equipment to fight a major wildfire.
Increasing the number of available personnel is called “up-staffing,” while organizing when and where to use those personnel and equipment in an emergency situation is called “pre-positioning.”
The Sonoma County Fire Chiefs Association is responsible for organizing the firefighting teams that are used to attack large regional fires. Big fires like these are fought by “strike teams” and “task forces” made up of personnel and equipment on temporary loan from different fire departments.
“A strike team is five engines of the same type with a strike team leader. A task force is five engines of different types with a task force leader,” Healdsburg Fire Department Fire Chief Jason Boaz said. “What the county has been doing during these Red Flag Warnings is that we’ve been upstaffing these additional resources and then pre-positioning them in the area of the
most need so that we can get out ahead of the incidents instead of being caught by them. That’s really helped us a lot.”
Another advantage of this strike-team approach is that it allows small regional fire departments to staff a major fire, while continuing to provide service in their own district — responding to house fires, car accidents and such.
“It’s a balancing act: you have to cover the home front, but you also have to help your neighbors out when they’re in need,” Gold Ridge Fire Chief Shepley Schroth-Cary said. “It’s a decision that’s evaluated and reevaluated as things unfold.”
Multiple departments, including Healdsburg Fire, Graton Fire, Gold Ridge Fire, Cloverdale, the Sonoma County Fire District and many others, chipped in fire personnel and equipment to the regional strike teams and task forces that would ultimately tackle the Kincade Fire.
“On that Wednesday, there were 22 fire engines over and above normally staffed operations in Sonoma County,” Graton Fire Chief Bill Bullard said. “As soon as they knew what day the Red Flag Warning was going to happen, they said we want engines pre-positioned as soon as the red flag warning starts. The county and the state are paying for upstaffing and pre-positioning of fire engines so that when something does happen, there’s that many more resources available.”
Turbeville said that from where he stood in Geyserville, at the edge of a ravening inferno, “upstaffing and pre-positioning made the biggest difference,” in assembling the force required to fight the fire.
Better coordination and communication creates a faster, smoother response
“We’ve done a lot of things since 2017 to prepare for this,” Boaz said. “Since the Tubbs fire, we have improved communication and coordination between all our local fire agencies. We really all work together as a team with Cal Fire.”
Cloverdale Fire Chief Jason Jenkins agrees.
“Sonoma County is incredibly strong and we’re good at what we do because we have depth in our system and we’re willing to, at the drop of a hat, share resources, regardless of jurisdiction or boundary. We have a boundary-less response when it comes to helping each other and our communities.”
That boundary-less response was helped along by a new communication tool called All Call that was put in place after the Tubbs Fire.
“Now we have an All Call so that in an incident like this, dispatch can put out a message that goes out to every agency in the county and that definitely helps because it decreases the amount of time for all the agencies to respond.”
All Call messages also show up on the phone of every firefighter in the county.
“That’s thousands of people,” Bullard said.
Schroth-Cary said All Call was used for the first time during the height of the Kincade Fire on Sunday night, Oct. 27, when firefighters feared that, due to the high winds, the fire was going to burn through a Windsor neighborhood, break through the line and jump the freeway.
“Fifty-nine resources were able to assemble in roughly half an hour at the Wells Fargo Center last night because the fire was moving into the Shiloh-Wikiup area,” Schroth-Cary said. “That was historic. It’s a testament to everybody’s willingness to step up and help one another. The amount of help that we can muster in a short timeframe in this county is really impressive and something to be proud of.”
Evacuation as a firefighting tool
The Kincade Fire was responsible for the largest evacuation in Sonoma County history: almost 200,000 people left their homes and headed south (or less often, north) for safety.
Every fire chief sung the praises of the early and large-scale evacuations.
“The evacuations made sure that the public was not in immediate danger, which meant the firefighters could concentrate on fighting the fire instead of evacuating people,” Bullard said. “You’ve probably heard, ‘It’s life over property,’ so if firefighters or police officers have to make a decision they are going to save lives over saving property. If you’ve evacuated an area, there are no lives to save — and you can now start working on other priorities,” like saving homes and putting out the fire.
Given their scale, the evacuations went surprisingly smoothly. Boaz said the town of Healdsburg emptied out in four hours without a hitch. In west county, gridlock on Highway 116 and other two-lane roads made the exodus slower, but for the most part, people were patient.
Cloverdale’s Jenkins ascribes this to the public’s awareness, since the Tubbs fire, “that fire, when pushed by high winds, can travel incredibly fast. That awareness is a big change.”
Some people questioned the scale of the evacuation, but according to Graton Fire Chief Bullard, the extensive evacuations, especially those in far flung west county, were dictated by fire behavior modeling.
“When this was being talked about last Wednesday, all the models predicted the thing was going to be a ‘Tubbs-level event,’ and it was going to reach the ocean. It was going to basically break through somewhere in Windsor or between Windsor and Healdsburg, and it was going to run straight to the coast through the Russian River Valley. Forestville, Guerneville and all that — it’s all heavy timber and open grassland,” he said.
In other words, a perfect host for fire.
And in fact, on Sunday, the fire tried to do exactly that, making a distinct westward turn that had it nibbling at the eastern edge of the Town of Windsor, moving in a straight line toward the Russian River Valley.
Only one thing stood its way — a taut red line of fire fighters, 3,400 strong.
“The fact that it never got past 101 is a miracle,” Bullard said, “and it speaks to the amount of resources that got thrown at this fire.”
It also speaks to the changes in firefighting policy that allowed those firefighters to be there in the right place, at the right time.