The Fires of October

A Perfect Storm

Story & Photos David Bolling

The wildfires that ravaged Sonoma, Napa, Solano and Mendocino counties were the most destructive in U.S. history. Statistics are still being gathered, but by mid-November the numbers defining the fire were staggering. And while statistics tell only part of the story, they offer handy reference points for understanding the scope of what happened. They also give us some guidance for how we face the future.

Overall, the October fires that raged across six counties (Lake and Butte counties were also impacted) burned more than 245,000 acres and destroyed at least 8,900 structures.

No final cost can be accurately calculated until all the recovery is closer to completion, but already the estimate is more than $3.3 billion.

For Sonoma County, there were ultimately two defined fires after aggregations of smaller fires took place. The Sonoma Valley was assaulted from three directions by six separate fires that incrementally merged into one, called the “Nuns fire,” a relentlessly misspelled reference to Nunns Canyon, where the originating flames are believed to have been born, close behind the historic Beltane Ranch and the adjacent Atwood Ranch.

Nuns Fire

The Nuns Fire is believed to have started along Nuns Canyon Road on the outskirts of Glen Ellen, and spread across an area to the east and north of the city of Sonoma. Early on, it jumped across Highway 12, driven by gale-force winds, tore through Dunbar Road, Henno Road, Warm Springs Road and O’Donnell Lane before encountering Sonoma Creek. From there it spread tentacles of fire in various directions, causing random destruction, leveling some homes while sparing others next door.

Flames scoured the Sonoma Valley Regional Park and spread south along the bed of Sonoma Creek, popping up to destroy a house at the foot of Martin Street. The Nuns fire merged with the Norrbom fire on October 11, which appears to have been born at the top of Gehricke Road before moving north along the Mayacamas ridge to Norrbom Road, and eventually Cavedale Road and Trinity Road. The Adobe fire, which marched up Adobe Canyon toward Sugarloaf State Park, merged with Nuns/Norrbom on October 12. The Partrick fire was born on the west side of Napa before crossing the Mayacamas ridge into Sonoma Valley, where it threatened Nicholson Ranch, Scribe and Gundlach Bundschu wineries (among others). It joined the four-fire conflagration on October 13. By October 16, the combined fire now included the Pressley fire, which started October 9 near Rohnert Park and covered more than 48,000 acres. On October 18, the Oakmont fire merged with the combined Nuns fires to cover more than 56,000 acres, while burning along the ridges between Sugarloaf and Hood Mountain state parks. The spectacular plumes from that fire became a spectator event for two days for Kenwood, Glen Ellen and Oakmont residents.

Tubbs Fire

The Tubbs Fire started near Tubbs Lane in Calistoga on the evening of October 8 and burned nearly 37,000 acres, crossing into Sonoma County and roaring down the canyon of Mark West Creek, laying waste to a wide swath of homes before reaching Santa Rosa, where it leaped six lanes of Highway 101 and utterly destroyed the Coffey Park neighborhood, taking more than 1,000 homes there alone. It also ranged along Old Redwood Highway through the Larkfield/Wikiup neighborhoods, destroying hundreds of homes and apartments along with the popular restaurant Willie’s Wine Bar, parts of Cardinal Newman High School and Cloverleaf Ranch, a well-known overnight horse camp close to the Kaiser Permanente medical offices that were surrounded by flames but did not burn.

In the Fountaingrove area, countless homes were incinerated, and the historic Fountaingrove Inn, Round Barn, and a Hilton resort were destroyed. Included in the carnage was the longtime home of Jean Schulz, widow of revered Santa Rosa cartoonist Charles Schulz. Jean Schulz, who now heads the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, escaped with her life, but the home she had shared with the Peanuts cartoonist for 25 years was burned to the ground. By October 14, the death toll from this fire alone had risen to 20. By October 20, the Tubbs Fire had become the most destructive wildfire in the history of California.

Cal Fire (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) is the lead investigative agency in determining the causes of each fire and has, at this writing, not released any final, official conclusions.

But fire experts have already described a perfect storm—comprised of dry, hot and violent winds combined with trees and understory damaged and desiccated by five years of drought and an unburned fuel supply that has been accumulating for decades. Fire authorities throughout the state had announced so-called Red Flag Warnings issued by the National Weather Service, predicting particularly dangerous wildfire conditions.

Red Flag Warnings are issued when conditions are such that even a single spark could trigger a major fire. The winds blowing the night of October 8 were clocked well in excess of 50 miles per hour, almost guaranteeing that once a fire had started, it would rapidly spread.

And it did.

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