It was about 2 a.m. Saturday when strong north winds blew into Sonoma, kicked up something burning and launched it over fire lines, sparking a new arm of the Nuns fire, forcing nighttime evacuations of hundreds of people northeast of town and destroying at least three homes on Castle Road.
“It created a big intense fire that came down the hill from the Seventh Street area, down into Castle Road,” Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre said.
The county issued 500 mandatory evacuation calls to residents of the rural lanes and roads. More than a dozen fire engines were in the area but all available firefighters in the valley, plus new strike teams and firefighters in Santa Rosa, rushed to the effort — an 18-hour-plus fight that was continuing in spots Saturday night.
Fire officials had a plan ready, knowing those winding lanes, Castle Road, Old Winery Road, Lovall Valley and Thornsberry neighborhood were vulnerable as fire already was near, said Akre, one of a team of commanders on the blaze. Crews were dispatched to protect properties, including the historic Buena Vista Winery, which didn’t burn.
“Crews experienced some very intense, some very difficult fire conditions. They did an outstanding job,” Akre said, estimating they’d likely saved hundreds of homes in the fire’s path.
Saturday night the fight continued, he said, but the winds were more manageable and forecasts more favorable.
The Nuns fire, the largest burning in Sonoma County, had burned 46,104 acres and was 15 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.
Firefighters carved defensive lines with bulldozers and hand tools and set backfires to protect advancing wind-driven flames.
The backfires left black earth around the grounds of Buena Vista and Bartholomew Park wineries.
“There are islands of fire throughout this area,” said a soot-faced firefighter running between uncontrolled burns near where Lovall Valley Road meets the Sonoma Valley floor. Gusty wind flung sparks and ash in the charred area.
Early in the week fire crews had to contend with four fires in the valley — the Adobe, Norrbom, Nuns and the Partrick — but the fires met and formed a single blaze by Friday morning.
The middle-of-the-night evacuation order didn’t cause chaos or confusion as most residents had already left under the evacuation advisory that had been issued days before, said Spencer Andreis, a Sonoma Valley Fire battalion chief.
Andreis said he “saw minimal traffic” after the order was given.
Greg Rose, 72, was one of the residents who stayed behind. He held a heavy hose as his neighbor sprayed the vegetation around their properties at the end of East Napa Street. While Rose had decided to stay, the flames had him on edge.
“I’ve never seen a fire so close,” said the 38-year resident of east Sonoma. “I hope to stay here.”
A handful of helicopters could be seen from his neighborhood dropping water on multiple flare-ups. Black plumes rose into a sky already choked with white smoke.
“I hope I don’t burn down,” Rose said with his eyes on the horizon.
By mid-afternoon the wind died down and most active burns gave way to smoldering embers allowing fires crews to make gains after winds had pushed fire growth over the previous 12 hours.
At 2:30 p.m., Petaluma firefighter Marty Ferina stood by his engine high in the hills up Seventh Street East protecting a home. Fire crews were posted at nearly every house on the road after flames had consumed several in the preceding hours.
“It looks like it is getting better up here,” Ferina said. “The wind has died down and they hit this area hard with air drops.”
Firefighters held their ground Saturday against flames that last week raced up Trinity and Cavedale roads into Napa County.