A C-130 air tanker drops fire retardant near Old Lawley Toll Road north of Calistoga on Sept. 30, 2020, in an attempt to prevent the Glass Fire from reaching nearby homes and vineyards. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Firefighters in the North Bay prepared for the return of hot, dry winds Thursday as they continued to battle the Glass Fire, which has now charred close to 58,880 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties since igniting on Sunday.
As of Thursday evening, the blaze was 5% contained, up from 2% the night before.
Ground crews scrambled to secure containment lines in advance of a red flag warning for the North Bay mountains — began Thursday at 1 p.m. and extends through early Saturday morning — when hot wind gusts of up to 30 mph could hinder efforts to fight the existing blaze, and increase the threat of new fires igniting. That warning, issued by the National Weather Service, also covers the East Bay Hills and Diablo Range, the Santa Cruz mountains and Los Padres National Forest, where the Dolan Fire is burning.
Cal Fire officials have warned residents to be vigilant about calling in any new fires they spot.
"We really have a tough 24 hours ahead of us as we go through this weather pattern," said Cal Fire Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox.
He noted that cooler more favorable weather conditions are forecast for later this weekend, when firefighters expect to make good progress containing the Glass Fire. "But really we're focussed right now on the next 24-hour operational period to really do as much as we can to protect the community that are threatened out there."
Thursday morning the blaze had destroyed at least 36 single-family homes in Sonoma County, along the eastern edge of Santa Rosa, and 107 homes in Napa County, according to Cal Fire. However, by Thursday evening the number of homes destroyed increased to 67 in Sonoma and 153 in Napa Couty.
A number of evacuation orders or warnings in and around Santa Rosa and unincorporated Sonoma County have been recently downgraded or lifted, with some neighborhoods starting to repopulate. But tens of thousands of residents in both counties remain under existing orders to leave their homes — including almost 13,000 in Santa Rosa alone.
"My main message for you today is that more evacuations are possible," Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said at a Thursday afternoon briefing. He reminded residents to be prepared by signing up for emergency updates, keeping cellphones charged, having at least a half a tank of gas in the tank and packing a go-bag with valuables and medication. And if residents hear a hi-lo siren, he added, that means "it's time to go."
In Napa County, the fire was "impinging" on the city of Calistoga and the hillside community of Argwin to the southeast, both of which remain under evacuation orders, said Cal Fire Operations Chief Mark Brunton. "It's not into [Calistoga] city limits by any stretch at this point, but it is something we are closely watching, monitoring and taking action on," he said at Thursday afternoon briefing.
New evacuation orders were also issued Thursday for all areas north of Calistoga between Highway 128, the Sonoma County line and Highway 29.
Derek Webb, who owns Triple S Ranch in Calistoga, refused to leave despite the evacuation order.
"I think everybody has to judge their own risk. I’ve seen way too many fires where a homeowner has stayed behind and saved his entire property with a garden hose," Webb said, noting that he had cleared brush to create a defensible space around his 20-acre property. "I’m not saying it’s for everyone," he added. "For me, I will always be able to take that risk just because I have confidence in myself and what I’m doing."
The fire on Thursday was also pushing toward Oakville, a hamlet south of St. Helena, near the Robert Mondavi winery. It also remained very active farther north in the rural Palisades area near Mt. St. Helena, where firefighters have been stymied by steep terrain and heavy fuels, Cal Fire’s Brunton said.
Fire crews were also closely watching the Highway 29 corridor on the valley floor.
"That is going to be a concern moving forward, because of the wine industry being what it is, and this time of year being critical for them," Brunton said. "They are allowed to operate at this point in time to harvest their crops. ... So we are going to be watching that closely."
In Sonoma County's Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, just across the county line, crews had made progress containing the blaze, but the flames still posed a "potential threat" to the nearby communities of Kenwood and Glen Ellen, located about halfway between between Santa Rosa and the town of Sonoma.
Meanwhile, the Highway 12 corridor heading into Santa Rosa — an area under serious threat earlier in the week — was "looking much better," he added, as was the nearby area along Calistoga Road.
Dione Carston, a homeowner in the Deer Park neighborhood of St. Helena, evacuated the area with her husband early Sunday morning — the fourth time she's had to flee her home in the last five years.
Earlier this week, she managed to sneak back onto her property to discover that the sprinkler her husband had hurriedly installed on the roof had saved the house and their two pet turkeys, even as the flames claimed the horse barn on their seven-acre property.
"We need a reprieve, we need a break, it’s too much and I don’t dare ask, 'What else?', because I believe the universe will open and show you what else it can give you," she said.
Burning between the scars of several recent blazes, the Glass Fire is devouring critically dry brush and grass that has not burned for at least 70 years, and has not been rained on for five months, making containment efforts all the more challenging, officials said.
More than 2,100 firefighters have been assigned to fight the blaze — in alternating 24-hour shifts — aided by a fleet of dozers, helicopters and air tankers, Cal Fire officials said. State prison officials also said Thursday that 230 incarcerated firefighters had been deployed to help with suppression efforts.
But, Brunton noted, even with the recent arrival of National Guard troops and out-of-state fire support, resources are stretched thin.
"We are, throughout the entire fire ... short of resources," he said. "And that's due to all the fires throughout the state right now."
"It's a scene that's ... very familiar with people in the Napa and Sonoma regions that have been torn asunder by wildfires seemingly every single year. This drumbeat, where people are exhausted, concerned, anxious about their fate and their future, not just their safety," he said during a press in front of a burned elementary school in St. Helena. "Clearly we have our work cut out for us to deal with not only suppression but prevention strategies here, with the immediate, as well as strategies to address the long term."
A shift in winds is expected to push the blaze toward the southeast, in the direction of Angwin and Pope Valley, Cal Fire officials said. Although they pose a serious threat, the winds are not expected to be as strong as the 50 mph gusts that drove the fire southwest toward Sonoma County late on Sunday.
Thursday's temperatures are expected to reach into the upper 90s in the higher elevations and low 100s in the valley, before dropping slightly on Friday.
The Glass Fire is one of 27 wildfires currently burning across California. That includes the Zogg Fire, a Shasta County blaze burning in heavily forested terrain southwest of Redding. That fire also started Sunday afternoon and has burned some 55,300 acres and destroyed almost 150 structures and killed four people — including one person who died in a hospital Wednesday, according to the Shasta County Sheriff Eric Magrini.
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 — which has included five of the six largest wildfires in state history — more than 8,100 California wildfires have killed 29 people, scorching nearly 4 million acres and destroying more than 7,000 buildings.
The causes of the new fires are under investigation.