Strong, dry winds whipped up a major, late-season wildfire in the remote hills of northeastern Sonoma County on Friday, burning 2,500 acres by nighttime and damaging a geothermal power plant while prompting energy workers in the area to evacuate in the face of advancing flames.
About 340 firefighters from more than a dozen local departments and the state were battling the blaze in The Geysers, a large geothermal energy field along the Sonoma-Lake county border.
Dubbed the McCabe fire, it was burning in Sonoma County toward Lake County, and it was about 10percent contained at the last report at 6 p.m.
After being grounded Friday amid strong winds and smoky conditions that made their drops ineffective, aircraft were able to douse hot spots inside the fire and active flames along the front, allowing hand crews and other equipment to strengthen containment lines.
A total of 1,758 firefighters and personnel were assigned to the McCabe fire Saturday. The blaze was 25 percent contained by 8 p.m., according to Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency.
No injuries were reported.
Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean said the work went “really well” after winds died down later in the day.
“It was a pretty good effort that was put out by the aircraft,” which slowed and cooled the flames for the crews on the ground, he said. “It's a concert of everything working together. It's not one thing that puts the fire out.”
That said, the diminishing winds played the biggest factor in firefighters' headway Saturday, and the weather should remain in their favor for the start of this week. Sustained winds are forecast to drop below 10 mph in the region, with rain predicted for the middle of the week.
A Cal Fire spokesman said that other than power-plant facilities, he was not aware of any structures that were threatened. Sheriff's deputies were checking cabins and other properties in the area, but they were found to be unoccupied and no evacuation order was given.
No injuries were reported.
The McCabe fire was one of two large wildland blazes in Wine Country that took off amid gusts and ripped through tinder-dry brush and forest. The other was a 300-acre fire that forced the evacuation of about 50 homes in the hills northeast of Napa. Residents were allowed back into the area Friday evening.
A number of smaller blazes kept firefighters across the region busy Friday as steady reports of toppled trees and downed power lines strained the reach of utility crews.
The McCabe fire was burning in the same range of hills where flames spread over 12,500 acres in 2004, consuming six cabins. Yet that fire was in September, often the peak of California's fire season, while the current blaze comes at the start of the wet season and on the heels of a light rainstorm this week.
Firefighting veterans said it illustrated how a combination of a prolonged drought and historically dry fuels plus erratic winds could spark extreme fire behavior, even in November. Reports from the McCabe fire described flames as “crowning,” racing to the tops of brush and trees as if it were August.