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2,500 acres burning in Geysers-area fire

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.

“It's almost Thanksgiving, and they're fighting a fire where it would be like summertime and 100 degrees,” said Santa Rosa Fire Division Chief Ken Sebastiani. “That's a tough one.”

Bob Benjamin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the winds that swept the region Thursday night and early Friday reached 50 mph at times. They weakened hours later, with peak gusts around 30 mph reported at mid-afternoon. But by that time the wind had fanned flames on wildlands, vineyard properties and along roadsides throughout Sonoma County. The fire conditions, which triggered a red-flag warning from the National Weather Service for the North Bay and interior valleys, are set to persist through this morning.

The McCabe fire was first reported about 2 a.m. Friday. It grew rapidly in size after 7 a.m., when it was reported at 100 acres and was 10 percent contained. Before noon, it was reported at 500 acres, and two hours later it had grown to 1,500 acres with no containment, according to incident reports relayed through the Geyserville Fire Protection District's Twitter feed.

It burned in steep, rugged terrain covered by oak woodland and grassland. About 3:30 p.m., with almost three dozen engines already assigned to the fire, a call for 20 more engines — carrying 60 more firefighters — went out.

Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean said the state firefighting agency also was requesting additional hand crews and bulldozers.

“Everything and anything,” he said. “It's a large incident.”

A massive column of smoke from the fire filled the sky over northern Sonoma County on Friday afternoon and was visible from Santa Rosa, about 30 miles south. It filled canyons in The Geysers area, combining with the strong winds aloft to make aerial firefighting efforts difficult to impossible, McLean said.

“There are heavy smoke conditions in the area, so it's difficult to get eyes on it,” he said.

A final report Friday evening put the fire's size at 2,500 acres. The cause of the blaze was unknown, McLean said.

Most fire departments in Sonoma County sent units to the blaze.

“It's just going crazy,” said Mike Elson, a captain with the Central Fire Authority in Windsor, which sent three engines early Friday plus two supervisors.

Other assisting departments included Geyserville, Healdsburg, Cloverdale, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Glen Ellen, Schell-Vista, Forestville, Graton, Gold Ridge, Occidental, Bennett Valley, Sebastopol and Rancho Adobe.

Two of the 15 geothermal power plants operated in the area by Calpine Corp. were offline because of the fire. One, the McCabe plant, sustained damage to its cooling towers, and another was down because of a fire-related transmission issue, according to Danielle Matthews Serepas, a Calpine spokeswoman.

She said the company had evacuated all nonessential personnel from the affected area and that Calpine was assisting firefighters with logistics and water supply.

The blaze in Napa County, called the Silverado fire, was in the hills east of Silverado Trail, where 50 homes were threatened by flames in the Soda Canyon Road area, triggering mandatory evacuations.

It started late Thursday, spread through oak forest and grassland and was estimated at 300 acres with 70 percent containment at 5:45 p.m. Friday. About 190 firefighters were assigned.

Evacuees were offered shelter in the gym at Napa High School, though most sought shelter with family or friends, according to Napa County Sheriff's Capt. Tracey Stuart.

The evacuation order and a road closure at Soda Canyon Road and Loma Vista Drive both were lifted shortly before 6p.m. Friday. The evacuation included homes off Loma Vista, Shady Oak Drive and Ridge Road.

The cause of the blaze was under investigation, though law enforcement officials said downed power lines were suspected.

The winds stirred up by this week's departing rainstorm were those typically experienced in late summer and early fall. Blowing offshore, from the land to the coast, they were warm and dry, and served to sap any residual moisture in already parched vegetation.

Toppled trees and downed electrical lines added to the flammable mix. Dispatchers reported 10 small vegetation fires from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in Sonoma County on Friday. They included a 5-acre fire off Dry Creek Road at Sbragia Family Vineyards, a 100-square-foot fire at Arrowood Vineyards off Highway 12 and a nighttime blaze off Chalk Hill Road east of Windsor.

The winds are expected to calm this afternoon, perhaps the only good news for a stretched fire corps that will be working through its third long day.

“People will be working through the night,” trying to hold and expand lines on the McCabe fire, McLean said. “You have to protect what you've got.”

Press Democrat Staff Writer Mary Callahan contributed to this story. You can reach Press Democrat Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.