Massive fires in Napa and Sonoma burn hundreds of homes and businesses, force evacuations, close hospitals

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By Peter Fimrite, Jill Tucker, Kurtis Alexander and Demian Bulwa
SFGATE

Massive wildfires ripped through Napa and Sonoma counties early Monday, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people and shutting down major roadways as firefighters sought to halt the advance of infernos driven by powerful winds.

There was no immediate estimate of the damage or the extent of injuries, but vast swaths of land were burning in both counties,

Photo: Noah Berger, Special To The Chronicle

 One out-of-control blaze in and around northern Santa Rosa called the Tubbs Fire had burned at least 20,000 acres by 8 a.m. Scores of homes were lost in the Fountaingrove area east of Highway 101 and in the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park on Mendocino Avenue.

The Fountaingrove Inn across the street from the mobile home park burned, as did the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, a Kmart store, a McDonald’s, an Arby’s, an Applebee’s and a Mountain Mike’s Pizza. And that was just the beginning.

Residents in the area described fleeing for their lives in the middle of the night from the fire, in cars or on foot. Hundreds of firefighters were on scene.

“It’s all hands on deck,” said Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox of Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency. He said the Tubbs Fire had started Sunday in Calistoga and burned west through canyons and over hills. The cause is under investigation.

Dave Shew, a Cal Fire spokesman, said the sunrise would allow aircraft to take to the sky and assess the damage. He said a number of Napa Valley wineries may have burned.

“This is an incredibly fast-moving and dynamic fire. We had real severe winds last night when this started. So it burned very, very fast,” Shew said. “Our No. 1 priority was life safety.”

“It’s just been a really rough night,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty significant. There are some neighborhoods that got hit pretty hard with structures lost. … This is an ongoing situation that is not only going to last days but weeks.”

Two hospitals in Santa Rosa, those run by Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health, were evacuated. Power outages were widespread.

People flocked to gas stations in cities that were safe from the conflagrations, to fuel up and buy water and other supplies. Evacuation centers were set up, then quickly filled, forcing more to open. At least one car dealership in Santa Rosa offered to take on evacuees.

In several cities, including Napa, Santa Rosa and Petaluma, public school leaders closed all schools Monday.

The series of fires began to ignite Sunday and multiplied as the night went on, hitting Napa and Sonoma the hardest but affecting at least five counties.

In Mendocino County, authorities evacuated some residents while fighting the Redwood Fire, which had burned 4,500 acres north of Highway 20 and west of Mendocino National Forest. In Marin County, officials said at 3 a.m. Monday that a grass fire had closed part of Highway 37.

Photo: John Blanchard  –  Napa Valley wildfires

In Alameda County, fire crews from multiple jurisdictions were battling a blaze in the North Berkeley hills at 3:45 a.m. They later declared it under control, and no homes were damaged.

All over the region, flames raced across fields and freeways and skies filled with embers and ash. The National Weather Service said the blazes, which caused power outages and blanketed much of the Bay Area in smoke, were fanned by dry northeast winds that gusted up to 50 mph in the valleys and 70 mph on mountaintops. Those winds were expected to ease later in the day.

In Napa County, the Atlas Fire broke out near Atlas Peak Road on Sunday evening and tore through a famed wine-growing area northeast of the city of Napa and the Silverado Trail. It had burned 5,000 acres by the morning.

Guests of the Silverado Resort and Spa on Atlas Peak Road said they escaped in a rush as flames approached. The resort had hosted the Safeway Open, a PGA Tour event, which ended Sunday.

“We were sleeping, but we kept smelling smoke,” said Chris Thomas, 42, of Kirkland, Wash., who arrived in the Napa Valley late Sunday with his wife, Marissa Schneider, for a wine-tasting trip.

They saw a firetruck pass, then were ordered to leave by loudspeaker. The power went out. Then things went downhill quickly.

“It was surreal,” Thomas said. “When I started loading stuff into the car it was a hell-storm of smoke and ash. There were 30 to 40 mph winds. I couldn’t even breathe, so I ran back to the unit to get Marissa. It was so smoky I went to the wrong unit. When I found her I said, ‘Forget it, let’s just go.’ It went from being an annoying evacuation to something really scary.”

Schneider said, “Debris was gusting around. The flames were about 100 feet from our door. It was scary.” They drove to downtown Napa and found a hotel room, though they were wary of being evacuated again.

Shew, of Cal Fire, said the Atlas Fire crossed Highway 128 and was burning east of Napa toward the south and east, headed toward Solano County.

In the Kenwood area, near Highway 12 east of Santa Rosa, evacuations were ordered along Porter Creek, Petrified Forest, Franz Valley and Mountain Home Ranch roads. The Nuns Fire was estimated at 300 acres by the morning. Another blaze, called the Patrick Fire, had burned 100 acres off Patrick Road west of Napa.

But the worst damage seemed to have been done in northern Santa Rosa by the Tubbs Fire. At one point, as it burned west from Napa County, evacuations were ordered for residents and businesses in the Skyfarm Drive, Fountaingrove Parkway and Montecito Heights areas east of Highway 101, according to the Santa Rosa Police Department.

Just after 2 a.m., police reported the fire had jumped Highway 101 and “ignited structures” west of the freeway near Hopper Avenue. Evacuations were then ordered for that area. Residents later said they had seen homes, shops and restaurants burning, including the Kmart.

“This is a life-threatening event,” officials said. “Leave immediately.”

Among those who left the Hopper Avenue area were 11 members of the Flores family, who woke up and piled into two vehicles with four dogs after being jolted awake by neighbors. They said the air was thick with smoke and the wind was blowing so hard that trash bins toppled over.

“We couldn’t really see anything,” said Bradley Flores, 15. “We just got our dogs and got into the car and left. The wind was so bad our car was shaking.”

He spoke from the parking lot of a Chevron gas station in Petaluma. The lot was full of evacuees who were fueling up, buying water and talking on cell phones.

Also making it to Petaluma were Lance and Barb Cottrell, who live near Santa Rosa. At about midnight, they saw fire cresting over the ridge near their home, after a neighbor rang the doorbell. They packed a couple of suitcases, grabbed some prized antiques and headed to a friend’s house to the west of Highway 101.

“Our house is probably gone,” Lance said. “We just finished it in 2014.”

Soon, though, flames raced so fast into their friend’s neighborhood that people ran for their lives. Lance jumped in his car, and Barb in hers, and they tried to drive away, but they they saw a house engulfed in front of them and had to make a U-turn.

They ended up stuck in traffic before escaping down country roads west of Santa Rosa, avoiding trees that had blown down.

The scene was similar in Napa County. On Highway 121 between Sonoma and Napa, flames chewed up vegetation on both sides of the road, shooting embers as a stream of people fled the area. Some drivers pulled over to the side of the road at safe spots, looking back at the fires. Police and firefighters tried to keep people moving.

Sonoma County officials said emergency dispatchers were being “overwhelmed by 911 calls” from residents smelling smoke, adding, “Please only call 911 if you see actual unattended flames.” Authorities in Marin and San Francisco counties made the same plea.

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