Scope of fires was unprecedented, overwhelming
Many homes saved despite worst possible circumstances
When seasoned local firefighters with decades of experience can only shake their head at the conflagration that attacked the Sonoma Valley, you know how bad it was.
The Nuns Fire, which was just one of many that started about the same time in Sonoma County (and Napa) the night of Oct. 8, eventually burned over 54,000 acres and destroyed 1,300 structures, according to Cal Fire.
High wind speeds and low humidity, combined with the sheer number of fires, led to a horrific firestorm.
Kenwood Fire Department Chief Daren Bellach said the situation they faced was impossible to prepare for.
“The worst-case scenario we train for was nowhere near what the worst-case scenario actually was,” said Bellach. “This was an historic fire.”
Bellach was serving as Duty Chief for Sonoma Valley that evening when, at approximately 10:30 p.m., he responded to a fire that started at the intersection of Nuns Canyon and Nelligan Roads, seeing a large glow as he sped down Sonoma Hwy. When he arrived, 10 to 15 acres were already involved.
The forecast for that evening was for 40 mph winds, but sometime between 10 and 10:30 p.m., those winds significantly changed, with gusts between 70 and 80 mph.
Battalion Chief Bob Norrbom of the Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority (SVFRA) came on the scene and worked to control the fire on Beltane Ranch. He said that after two hours he felt things were going pretty well and the wind was favorable, but then the winds picked up and blew the fire across Sonoma Highway into the Dunbar Road area and kept going.
“When the fire went and jumped the highway,” said Will Horne, Fire Chief for the Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department, “I knew at that point this was not going to be a normal forest fire in our area.”
With swirling fire and high winds, the number one objective was life – getting people out of the area.
“I couldn’t keep up,” said Bellach. “By the time I ordered one area evacuated, I would say to myself we needed a bigger box. We evacuated on Dunbar, and then it started burning Dunbar, and we realized, wow, we need to make an evacuation on Arnold Drive, then Trinity Road, then it was, wow we need to look at the whole town of Glen Ellen and the Sonoma Developmental Center – we kept bumping up.”
The winds blew huge embers, a quarter to a half a mile away from where firefighters were already engaged, hitting Henno Road as well as other areas, with homes and out buildings being destroyed. Fire took out a section of residences along Warm Springs Road. Side roads between Dunbar Road and Sonoma Highway suffered major, catastrophic damage. Other streets saw homes go up in flames as well.
“Things went sideways in a hurry, said Battalion Chief Rusty Sims of the Glen Ellen Fire Department. “You had so many streets on fire, you have to pick and choose where you can make a difference. We were literally looking around to see what we could do that would be useful, which is heartbreaking for firefighters. That’s not normal, that’s not how we roll.”
At one point, there were fires on both sides of Glen Ellen, flanking the town.
“I never thought I’d be trying to protect structures in downtown Glen Ellen because of a wildfire that started in Nuns Canyon. Excuse me?” said Norrbom, who grew up in Glen Ellen.
Up the road in Kenwood, a call came at approximately 10:30 p.m. There was a fire that started on the west side of the tasting room at Chateau St. Jean. It turned into another firestorm, taking out homes on the south side of Adobe Canyon, on Chateau St. Jean Court (Goff Road), and then jumping Sonoma Highway and blowing into the Treehaven area. It kept going up the hills to Kenilworth Avenue and Kenwood Vista Estates, over into Lawndale, Bristol and Schultz roads, then into Annadel State Park and the Bennett Ridge neighborhood.
Many homes burned to the ground – a narrow, long, vicious, and unforgiving fire throwing up embers that just kept going and going.
At the beginning, this fire was known as the Adobe Fire, but it, along with other fires in the area, all merged into the Nuns Fire.
Up on Trinity and Cavedale roads, a heavily wooded area with narrow, winding, steep roads, Mayacamas’ Chief Horne and fire crews battled 100-foot flames as they tried to defend as many homes as possible. A major fire in that rugged area was everyone’s greatest fear.
Crews faced a number of obstacles as the days passed, including huge plastic water tanks melting and rupturing on some properties, pouring out thousands of gallons of valuable firefighting water, and some homes that were not properly defensible due to things like huge piles of wood chips too close to structures.
Of the 125 homes located in the Mayacamas VFD’s area, 47 were destroyed, the others saved by firefighters. Horne’s long-time residence on Wall Road was one of the homes lost.
The exact number of residences lost in Glen Ellen and Kenwood is still being assessed by Cal Fire as of press time.
Firefighters were overwhelmed by fires that were out of control and unpredictable due to continuing high winds, low humidity, and plenty of fuel to burn. Some strike teams from other counties arrived to help but there still weren’t enough resources to handle the fast-moving fires in Glen Ellen and Kenwood during those first days.
Bellach and Norrbom kept calling for more help – trucks, air support, anything. But with all the other fires that were going on, help was slow in coming.
“That’s why we didn’t have the immediate resources we needed. Everyone was committed to something,” said Bellach. “That’s why it took us four days to get help.”
The massive Tubbs Fire got most of the priority since it was bearing down on the urban population of Santa Rosa. Local firefighters understand that, but it just made an untenable situation even worse.
“We did the best we could with what we had to work with,” said Norrbom. “Everyone did a really good job. Any one these fires would overload the resources we have in Sonoma County. To have it all come at the same time – it was overwhelming.”
Firefighters worked non-stop for days. Bellach didn’t sleep for 92 hours. Norrbom worked 17 days straight. Many others followed suit, staying dedicated to fight fires that were literally in their own back yards.
While damage statistics are slowly coming out, Cal Fire estimated the amount of burned acres within each of Sonoma Valley’s official fire districts due to the Nuns Fire.
Within the Kenwood Fire District’s boundaries, 9,402 acres burned, representing 35 percent of total acreage.
Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority, which includes the Glen Ellen Fire Department, had 6,397 acres burned, which equates to 22 percent. Norrbom speculated that most of the acreage burned within SVFRA occurred in Glen Ellen.
Mayacamas’ area burned 7,966 acres, representing 98 percent of total acreage. Causes of the Nuns Fire are still being investigated.
“I’ve completed 58 years of continual fire service and been on a number of major fires,” said Horne. “I’ll tell you as a fact that this was the worst and most ferocious fire I’ve ever seen.”
Horne has decided to not return to the area, moving with his wife to a family property in Mendocino. He has told the Mayacamas VFD board of directors that he will be resigning from his job as chief at the end of the year.
The Nuns Fire is now the sixth most destructive fire in California history. Other major fires that were going on at the same time have unfortunately also made this list. The Tubbs Fire is now #1, the Atlas Fire in Napa County is #9, and the Redwood Valley Fire in Mendocino County is #16.
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