How the city was saved from fire

21 November 2019

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USA – The Kincade Fire came close to Healdsburg.

“Very close,” Healdsburg Fire Chief Jason Boaz stressed. “Probably within a mile or two on the south end of town and the east end of town. You can see from the map right here that it probably got closest right over here off of Bailhache Avenue and Toyon Drive,” Boaz said, pointing to a fire map and the drive to illustrate how close the flames came.

“It basically skirted all the way around the town,” Boaz said.

Driving up Toyon Drive with Boaz, bright red spots of retardant jumped out of the landscape, covering roofs, gates, trees and even decorating a white “For sale” sign with its bright color.

Hand-made signs with hearts and phrases like “Thank you, firefighters” hung on driveway gates and fences. Climbing up Toyon, great swaths of blackened earth filled the view and at the top of Toyon, looking north down the valley toward Geyserville, the sight of the singed landscape looked more like that of a desolate, alien planet.

Yet with a slew of resources and tactical approaches such as deploying hand crews to maintain fire lines, fire front following, back burning and prepositioning, Healdsburg was made safe and not a single home in the city nor near Toyon Drive was lost.

How Kincade slithered its way to town

The Kincade Fire started on Oct. 23 around 9:30 p.m.

“What it did for those first couple of days was burned up and around the region of the mountains around the geysers,” Boaz said.

Healdsburg Fire Marshal Linda Collister said the fire then started to make a run when the winds kicked up.

“Around midnight on Oct. 24 is when it came down and really impacted the community of Geyserville. Then, during the 25th and 26th, it just kind of creeped across the hill towards the south. And when the big wind event came on the 27th, it really impacted us in the early morning hours of Sunday into Monday and that is when it blew down to Highway 128. And that’s when we started getting spot fires here over by West Soda Rock,” Boaz said.

From there it ran around Young Road by Rio Lindo and up toward Toyon Drive.

“The original fire models I saw showed it coming directly kind of out of northeast right towards Healdsburg and Fitch Mountain,” Boaz said. “The models actually had it going all the way across the freeway and all the way out to the ocean … And that is part of the reason why the decision was made to evacuate the town.”

In the early morning hours of Sunday and into Monday when daylight hit, aircraft were then able to get up and fly to drop water and retardant loads.

“They really made a hard stand over and in between Bailhache Avenue and Toyon Road and Fitch Mountain,” Boaz said.

The fear was that the second wind event, following the Saturday, Oct. 26 wind incident, was going to spot the fire on the other side of the river by Fitch Mountain.

The No. 1 objective for Healdsburg fire crews was to not let it jump the river and get to the Fitch side.

Boaz pointed out that if the fire had jumped the river from Bailhache Avenue and spread to Fitch Mountain, then it would’ve been a challenging firefight due to the steep terrain and narrow roads of the area.

“It was a close call,” Boaz said.

He said it was lucky the second wind event was not as strong as originally forecast and that it began to blow south rather than west.

“We kept watching it as it was progressing. It was coming down slowly, it kind of stalled a day or so and the wind wasn’t pushing it towards us, and then it started moving south. It just missed us,” Collister said.

Tactics and resources

Resources used for keeping the licking flames back from Toyon Drive and the city included Very Large Air Tankers (VLATS), Boeing 747s, helicopters, dozers, and a handful of local strike teams and task forces.

Strike teams are teams comprised of five engines of the same type with an assigned strike team leader. A task force is made up of engines of a different type with a task force leader.

Boaz said crews used “every tactic in the book” during the fire.

“When it spotted over here on West Soda Rock it was a little touchy right there because that really was going to threaten the north end of town and we had some incident resources there. We had a couple of hand crews, some dozers. There were a number of engines from Geyserville and Chief Paul Fleckenstein of CalFire was there to catch those spot fires.”

Healdsburg engines then did a lot of work on Toyon Drive.

Collister said as the fire came up closer to the Toyon Drive area there was some back burning fire put around homes in that area in order to protect them.

“They saved all of the houses up there,” Collister said. “The strike team came up and they were doing structure protection on some of the homes up there. And one of the things that they say is so important: is once the fire is through, to go back and make sure that those houses do not reignite.”

Boaz said that rather than getting out in front of the fire, they use this tactic called “fire front following.”

“We basically stand back in a secure position, let the fire front blow through and then we go through immediately after and put out anything that’s on fire. It makes it a lot safer for our crews,” Boaz said.

Collister said crews then continued to do tactical patrols to make sure whatever burns does not burn again.

When asked how many Healdsburg firefighter personnel were assigned to the area, Boaz said it is hard to say, but approximated that there were at least 20 engines.

“All of our Healdsburg fire personnel were here covering the city and working on the fire in numerous spots. We called back the whole paid staff and all of our volunteers. We had every piece of equipment Healdsburg fire has staffed and working, not only covering calls in the city, but working on the fire, too,” Boaz said.

Applying 2017 to fight

“We learned a lot,” Boaz said of the fires from two years ago. “We do some things differently than we did in 2017. It is important to note though that this fire, at the time, was the only significant fire burning in the state so we had the luxury of having more CalFire resources.”

He pointed out that in 2017 there were probably 170-plus fires burning throughout the state, running CalFire resources thin.

“Some of the things we did differently this time, which really worked, were up-staffing additional resources in the county that are designed to be used anywhere in the county where there is a need,” Boaz said.

He said at the height of the fire there were four task force or strike teams staffed up with 20 engines and four chiefs.

“That gave us the ability, for example when it impacted Windsor, to just surge resources into there,” he said. Also, “We have an all call now. In 2017 we had to page out each individual resource, now we have an all call that hits every pager at once and gets everybody moving all at once.”

However, Boaz said the single biggest thing done differently this time around was calling the evacuations of Windsor, Healdsburg and west county.

“There is no question in my mind that we had we not evacuated the city of Healdsburg and the Town of Windsor and the surrounding areas that the outcome would have been a lot different,” Boaz said.

By having everyone out of town it eliminated the life safety threat, which is the No. 1 priority for firefighters. With this factor eliminated crews were able to focus all of their attention to saving homes and moving resources around town.

“We had prepositioned resources everywhere in town in anticipation of the fire hitting us,” Boaz said.

Boaz commended Healdsburg residents for heeding the order and evacuating in an orderly fashion.

Collister added that the other thing done differently with the Kincade Fire was shutting off the power.

“Shutting down the electrical we didn’t have to worry about additional fires and I think on those wind event days we would have had a lot more fires,” Collister said.

When asked what was so different about this particular fire, Boaz and Collister said that it was the fact that it got so close to town.

Collister said they thought the 2015 Valley Fire was a career fire, meaning you’ll only see a fire like that once in your lifetime.

“What we are seeing now are these massive catastrophic fires. We don’t usually see fires this large this often and it started with the Valley Fire in 2015,” Boaz said.

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