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How wine country became the epicenter for fires in California

By Joseph Serna and Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SANTA ROSA, Calif. - Perhaps no part of California has felt more threatened by fire in recent years than the vast expanse of wine country and the Redwood Empire north of San Francisco.

More than 9,000 structures were lost and dozens of people were killed in 2017, when fires swept through Santa Rosa and surrounding communities. Last year, the Kincade fire menaced the region for weeks, putting nearly 100,000 people under evacuation orders. More than 50% of Lake County to the north of Santa Rosa has burned in the last decade.

You could be forgiven for thinking the region is due for a break. But on Sunday night, a fiery chain of events returned like a nightmare: a dry winter followed by a hot summer, which leads to a small grass fire on a windy autumn day spreading to an overgrown forest, where it feeds and transforms into a monster that races toward civilization.

Between the Tubbs and Nuns fires, which in 2017 burned almost 100,000 acres of trees and shrubs from Santa Rosa to Napa County to the east, and the 2019 Kincade fire, which scorched an additional 75,000 acres, most of the forested areas east of the city have seen flames sometime in the last few years.

But there was one wedge of land north-northeast of Santa Rosa - on the other side of Highway 12, above Trione-Annadel State Park, the Oakmont neighborhood and the Skyhawk Community development - that had no fire history going back 70 years. Its foothills were covered with fast-burning grass, chaparral and oak, and its rugged canyons and ridgetops were dotted with drought-stricken conifers.

That's the area that burned through Sunday into Monday, sending tens of thousands of residents fleeing once again, as a 20-acre spot fire graduated to a 50-acre runner, then grew from 2,500 acres to 11,000 acres overnight.


"It truly was one of the areas we had established ... as the greatest threat to Santa Rosa, and it was something we've been trying to secure grants for, to aid in future vegetation management," said the city's assistant fire marshal, Paul Lowenthal.

While the cause of the fire is under investigation, officials said Monday it was possibly sparked by embers from the Glass fire on the other side of the Napa Valley.

Winds Sunday night were blowing steadily between 40 and 60 mph across the North Bay hills, with some gusts up to 65 mph, said National Weather Service meteorologist Anna Schneider.

While it wasn't remarkably warm Sunday night, the air was extremely dry because it was being pulled over inland mountains from the hot, dry Great Basin, sapping it of any moisture as it traveled downslope and across the valley floor.


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