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The week Sonoma burned


The chaos surrounding the fires that have savaged Sonoma Valley is perhaps best summed up by the catchy name of the conflagration being used by fire officials: the Southern LNU Complex.

Where the heck did they get that, you ask?

It’s because Sonoma’s inferno is not merely one, but four distinct conflagrations assailing the Valley from all corners.

The fires attacking Sonoma Valley include:

The Partrick Fire, which came in from the east over Gunlach Bundschu and Scribe Winery and hit the east side of Sonoma;

The Nuns Fire, which came in from the northwest and ravaged parts of Glen Ellen;

The Norrbom Fire, which came in from the north and threatened the Springs;

and the Abode Fire, which ravaged Kenwood.

Confused and frightened residents posted angry comments on Facebook over the past 48 hours, questioning why the national media was “ignoring” Sonoma Valley. The impossibility of succinctly explaining the fire situation here may be partly to blame.

Also to blame was the sheer number of fires in question.

As of midday on Thursday, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) reported that fires across all of Northern California had burned more than 191,000 acres. Some 5,000 state emergency crews, comprising 8,000 firefighters, have been deployed to assist local authorities in battling what they have described as 21 different fires, of which Sonoma Valley’s are just four.

Local residents were urged to get their information only from official sources, and more specifically from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Nixle emergency reporting system (nixle.com).

But other official sources at times provided conflicting information. Residents said they were confused on Wednesday when they heard that downtown Sonoma was – and then wasn’t – being evacuated. A Sheriff’s deputy circled the Plaza with a loudspeaker around 5 p.m. announcing, “It’s time to go. Evacuate.” But an official Nixle announcement told only of a “voluntary evacuation advisory.”

Regardless, hundreds of downtown residents grabbed their pets and belongings, and a steady stream of cars took the preferred safe route out of town – via Stage Gulch Road to Petaluma and on to points south on Highway 101. For those who stayed, they watched an impressive stream of National Guard vehicles and earth-moving trucks file into town. Dozers began digging wide ditches in nearby Mountain Cemetery to protect the downtown.

Thanks to few winds, low temperatures and higher humidity, all was quiet in the deserted downtown on Wednesday night.

Residents woke up to intensely smoky conditions on Thursday morning but a general sense that “the worst is over” was reported by the those who had chosen to stick it out.

When a mandatory evacuation order was issued just five blocks from the Plaza on Thursday morning at 11:10 a.m., many were taken by surprise. The order was issued in Sonoma for the area east of Fourth Street East, between Brazil and East Napa Street, and north of East Napa Street between Fourth Street East and Old Winery Road.

Already under a mandatory order at that time were homes and businesses along Seventh Street East, Castle Road and Lovall Valley Road east of Old Winery Road, as well as all of Glen Ellen, and several roads east of Highway 12.

“We’re not out of the woods and we’re not going to be out of the woods for a lot of days to come,” OES director Mark Ghilarducci said at a midday press conference on Thursday.

Ghilarducci said California was reaching out to neighboring states for mutual aid assistance in fighting what he described as a “serious, critical, catastrophic event.” He said the fire was being fueled by five years of drought. Areas are extremely dry, despite the record winter rainfall.

The wildland fire, he said, is burning extremely close to highly-populated areas, where people’s homes and the flames are separated by less than two miles.

He singled out Santa Rosa, where “box stores, buildings, hotels, all of it,” were leveled by fire, an estimated 2,800 structures.

Calistoga remained under mandatory evacuation orders on Thursday, and an advisory evacuation order has been issued for Middletown in Lake County. And authorities warned that several fires were likely to merge.

Some 700 service members from the National Guard are currently on duty and there are plans to deploy another 1,800 soldiers. Dozens of trucks arrived in Sonoma Valley late in the day on Wednesday.

School buses lined up in front of Adele Harrison Middle School that evening to transport Sonoma Developmental Center residents to safer digs in Fairfield.

Both local and state government officials have stressed the seriousness of the fire at every opportunity.

“We’ve had big fires in the past, this is one of the biggest and most serious and it’s not over,” Gov. Brown said.

At end of day Thursday, it appeared firefighters had smothered most of the Partrick fire in Lovall Valley.

As of Thursday morning, State Farm Insurance reported that nearly 1,900 homeowner claims and more than 700 auto claims had been filed as a result of the Northern California wildfires.

The Sonoma County Sheriff has reported 29 dead; no identities have been released.

Contact lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.