Glass Fire Continues Ruthless Assault on Wine Country as Firefighters Brace for More Wind

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A helicopter drops water on a ridge above Jericho Canyon near Calistoga on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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Flames continued to devour large swaths of brush and trees in the North Bay wine country on Wednesday, as firefighters tried to contain the fierce blaze fueled by unruly winds and hot, dry weather.

Burning from the steep hills north of Calistoga to the eastern edges of Santa Rosa, the Glass Fire had scorched 51,266 acres in Sonoma and Napa counties, Cal Fire reported Wednesday evening. It remained just 2% contained.

The blaze ignited before dawn Sunday in the hills northeast of St. Helena, driven forward by high winds. That evening, a pair of blazes started on the ridges west of town and merged as they made a rapid advance toward Santa Rosa, forcing some 70,000 residents to flee their homes. The blazes on the east and west sides of the Napa Valley have burned together and are being managed as a single incident.


Since Tuesday, evacuation orders and warnings have been expanded in Napa County even as orders were lifted in some neighborhoods on the eastern edge of Santa Rosa, where the threat had diminished.

More than 2,000 firefighters have been assigned to the blaze and are bracing for another period of high winds expected to begin Thursday.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for elevations above 1,000 feet in the North Bay mountains, where northwest winds gusting to 30 mph and hot, dry conditions are forecast. The warning is set to remain in effect from 1 p.m. Thursday to 6 p.m. Friday.

As a safety measure made at the request of firefighters, PG&E cut power Wednesday afternoon to an additional 3,100 customers, mostly in Napa County, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported. That leaves a total of about 14,800 customers in Napa and Sonoma counties without power — down from 28,000 on Sunday. Gas service also remains off for about 5,000 customers.

"We're looking at a very similar wind event than when this fire first started moving out three days ago. Now's the time for our firefighters to buckle down," said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Billy Seed at a Wednesday press briefing. Fire crews, he said, were working hard Wednesday to secure existing containment lines.

"We're preparing for the worst-case scenario and hoping for the best," he added. "Our firefighters are going to be working around the clock, preparing those lines."

Cal Fire has confirmed more than 170 buildings have been destroyed, including 143 single-family residences in Napa and Sonoma counties. More than 26,000 additional structures are still under threat.

The fire is raging through extremely dry vegetation that in some areas hasn't burned in nearly a century, officials said. In the section of the fire burning in the hills between the Napa Valley and Santa Rosa, the blaze is burning between the large expanses incinerated by the Tubbs Fire and Nuns Fire in 2017.

The latest perimeter map of the Glass Fire, released by Cal Fire on Sept. 30.
The latest perimeter map of the Glass Fire, released by Cal Fire on Sept. 30. (Courtesy Cal Fire)

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mark Brunton, the operations section chief on the incident, said the blaze continues to pose a threat to areas all around its northern perimeter, including Calistoga, which remains under an evacuation order. The firefight on that front, which extends into the lower slopes of Mount St. Helena and east across the hills above Pope Valley, has been very challenging due to terrain so rough that it "makes it hard to get lines down," he said.

With the forecast shift to northwesterly winds on Thursday, Brunton added, crews will also face a tough battle on the southern end of the fire. To help ease the threat there, Brunton said, crews conducted a firing operation in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park on Wednesday to try to deprive the advancing blaze of fuel and help protect the Sonoma County town of Kenwood.

“The trifecta for the spread of wildland fire is fuel, weather and topography,” Brunton said. “And we have all three of those in alignment.”

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Further north, he said, another firing operation had sealed off part of the blaze above Oakmont, the 5,000-resident retirement community on Highway 12 near Calistoga Road. Crews had also made progress containing the fire in Trione-Annadel State Park, bordering Santa Rosa, though he noted that "the weather will test those lines."

Brunton also said there has been relatively little aircraft support on the incident so far because of unsafe flying conditions due to thick smoke and poor visibility.

Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner on Wednesday urged residents to be mindful of their surroundings with the arrival of increased winds and to immediately report any new fires that ignite.

"For the city of Santa Rosa residents, this wind event is going to be serious enough for everyone to pay attention," he said. "So whether you live in a warning zone or an evacuation zone, you need to pay attention to the weather and everything around you. It's vital."

Sonoma County law enforcement officials also stressed that it is unlawful to remain in areas under evacuation orders and that those neighborhoods were being regularly patrolled to prevent any break-ins.

"The sheriff's office is in those zones, patrolling the area, ensuring your property is safe while you are gone," said Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick.

Separately, Cal Fire officials said that late Sunday night, two firefighters had to deploy fire shelters while battling the blaze in Napa County.

"Intense fire conditions, fueled by gusty, off-shore winds" forced the firefighters "to take refuge" in aluminized cloth tents, officials said. Neither firefighter was injured, though several transport vehicles were damaged.

Nikki and Kevin Conant returned to their Santa Rosa home on Wednesday after evacuation orders were lifted to find only charred ruins and burned remnants of custom-made art and furniture they had fashioned from wine barrels.

“It was like a part of me is gone, burned up in the fire. Everything we built here, everything we made here is gone," Nikki Conant said.

The couple, both 52, were preparing to evacuate Sunday when they saw an orange glow in the hills near their rental home. Within 45 minutes, they could hear the trees crackling and propane tanks exploding as the blaze reached their community. They jumped in their car and sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic for what seemed like an eternity.

"I thought we were going to burn alive. I really did. It was horrible," Nikki Conant said.

She sobbed Wednesday when she spotted her now-burned chicken coop; all 12 of her beloved chickens died in the fire. All the tools for their wine-barrel furniture and art business were gone, too.

Some residents in the region say they are getting fed up with the near-annual evacuations and fire fears and are thinking about leaving. But the Conants said they plan to stay despite their latest harrowing experience.

Their landlord already told them the home will be rebuilt and offered them a trailer to stay in on the property while the house is finished, Nikki said.

"This is home," she said. "I was born and raised here, my family is here. I don’t have the heart to just give up and leave the area."

The Glass Fire is one of nearly 30 wildfires burning across California. That includes the Zogg Fire, a Shasta County blaze that started Sunday afternoon and has burned nearly 52,000 acres, destroyed some 150 structures and killed four people — including one person who died in a hospital Wednesday, according to the Shasta County Sheriff Eric Magrini.

The Zogg Fire is burning in heavily forested terrain southwest of Redding. More than 1,200 people have been evacuated from the area.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday night issued an emergency proclamation for Napa, Sonoma and Shasta counties. The governor has also declared a statewide emergency due to the widespread fires and extreme weather conditions, activated the State Operations Center to its highest level and signed an executive order to streamline recovery efforts in communities impacted by fires.

Additionally, Newsom said he sent a letter to President Trump requesting a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration to assist state and local wildfire response and recovery efforts in Fresno, Los Angeles, Madera, Mendocino, San Bernardino, San Diego and Siskiyou counties.

So far in this year’s historic fire season, more than 8,100 California wildfires have killed 29 people, scorched 5,780 square miles and destroyed more than 7,000 buildings. The causes of the new fires are under investigation.

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This story includes additional reporting from the Associated Press and Bay City News.

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