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Fire in Sonoma County, the “New Normal”

The Kincade Fire devastates California's wine country and residents hunker down

Firefighters from throughout California have come to battle the rapidly spreading Kincade fire.

The Kincade fire is 10 percent contained. The fire began on October 23, 2019, and for three days winds have sent flames hopping through the beautiful grasslands of the wine country. Attempting to prevent loss of life, fire departments ordered mandatory evacuations. Three of every five residents in Sonoma County have sought safety in shelters. The Sonoma County Fairgrounds, five blocks from my house, is one of the evacuation sites. Today, I walked over there to find out what, exactly, happens during an evacuation, but just for some perspective first, here are some statistics Tweeted out by NBC morning anchor Kira Klapper (@KiraKlapper)

Kira Klapper fire statistics

Sheltering at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds

The Sonoma County Fairgrounds is located near the intersection of Highway 101 and Highway 12. Because Sonoma County is agricultural, the Fairgrounds has facilities to house large animals. In the parking lot I saw many horse trailers, but when I walked back by the animal pens, I saw llamas, pigs, and couple of burros. The Fairgrounds was the first evacuation center set up for those fleeing the fire in Geyserville. It soon filled up as residents of Windsor and Healdsburg were ordered to leave.

Sonoma County Fairgrounds

The parking lots at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds were full to capacity, and there were many cars parked under Highway 12, the highway that leads to Sebastapol, where the fire is expected to spread.

animal evacuation site

Fire affects animals, and so when people receive cell phone messages that evacuation is imminent, they must load up their horse trailers and transport their animals to a place that can safely house them. Luckily, the Fairgrounds has such facilities, but they were full to capacity. This homeless man stopped to converse with a guard.

Inside the Fairgrounds, tables are set up to take down basic information and get evacuees water, a blanket, and a cot if one is available. All of this is staffed by Red Cross volunteers.

old lady in bed

Half of the space inside the Fairgrounds’ main building was set up for evacuees from nursing homes. The beds provided by the Red Cross had padded mattresses, and the patients’ caregivers were there watching over their charges.


Evacuees stood in line to get a single slice of pizza. They were told to take the food to the dining room, rather than to their cots. Many of those at the Fairgrounds were elderly and frail. Many others were Hispanic, homeless, or poor. The atmosphere inside the building was subdued, with people quietly talking and waiting patiently for their food.

The Veterans’ Building: Filled to Capacity with Fire Evacuees

Normally on a Saturday, the parking lot of the Veterans’ Building houses a farmers’ market, but the fire has interrupted harvest season, and now, the Veterans’ Building is where people come to charge their cell phones or get a cot for the night. The logistics of dealing with all the evacuees falls to the Red Cross.

Veterans Building

Across the street from the Fairgrounds, the Veterans’ Building had also been turned into a shelter, but a sign on the door indicated it was full.

Getting ready to broadcast a live report, a news cameraman squats and tries to fix a broken cable while the on-air reporter in the yellow jacket tries to tell the folks back in the studio why there’s a delay. Behind them, parked at the edge of the lot, were a number of out-of-service city buses, and they may been standing by in case it was necessary to move the evacuees further south to Marin County.

lady with

When the Sheriff’s Dept. and Fire Dept. issued evacuation orders, people were told to bring their pets, preferably on a leash or in a cage. Two years ago the fire spread so rapidly and the warning system was so bad that evacuees didn’t know they could bring their animals. The woman hold her dog in her lap is undoubtedly comforted by knowing her pet is safe.

cots in Veterans' Building

The mood inside the Veterans’ Building was subdued. Many folks were just lying on their cots and staring up at the ceiling. Others were checking their cell phones.

Firefighters from around California Battle the Blaze

Fire crews have come from all over California to help battle the blaze. Prisoners, too, have been put to work for $1/hour, not a very good deal for them, considering the danger and strenuous nature of the work. Firefighters estimate the fire will not be contained until November 7.

So what caused this inferno? PG&E, the electric utility, claims that it’s the unusual wind events, and indeed, last night was terrifying with winds from 70 to 90 miles an hour. What happens in such high winds is that the power lines swing, possibly leading to arcing. The arcing sets off fires in trees near the power lines. Today in Lafayette, just on the other side of San Pablo Bay, a completely different fire began because high winds caused a power pole to topple. Now, residents of Lafayette are fleeing the fire.

When the wind picks up, power lines swing like jump ropes, leading to arcing. An aging infrastructure and a mishmash of above-ground power and phone lines are evident the Luther Burbank Gardens Historic District, my neighborhood. Rising about the trees at the end of the street is smoke from the fire further north. Fortunately, the wind was blowing smoke the other way. Two years ago, the smoke was so thick it was hard to breathe.

fire truck

This fire truck came from Southern California, Monterey Park, a community adjacent to East Los Angeles. I think it’s safe to say that every resident of Sonoma and Napa Counties is grateful for the assistance.

Facing the Unknown

It’s now 7:30 pm, and the wind is picking up again. My neighbor’s stepladder is banging and rattling against the garage (my writing space). The winds last night were so bad that I thought someone was breaking into my house, and throughout the night, my cell phone lit up with new Nixle alerts. That’s the emergency warning system. Several times my phone sounded like a tornado siren. That was the signal for some community or other to evacuate, and the adrenaline rush, as well as the frequent alerts, made it impossible to sleep.

As the wind speed increases, I’m suddenly coughing. My throat burns. It’s going to be another long night, I fear, and one of those times when a natural event strips away the illusion that we are in control of our lives. Welcome to the new normal.






  1. Melissa A Montana says:

    Hope everything turns out okay. Take care of yourself.

    1. Marylee says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words. The firefighters are getting it under control.

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