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Geography, luck spared Petaluma from fires

At two minutes past midnight early on Oct. 9, the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District received a call that a wind-blown powerline had sparked a grass fire on Poplar Avenue, just outside of Penngrove. Firefighters raced to the scene and quickly stomped out the blaze after it torched one acre.

Meanwhile, across Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, strong gusts caused similar blazes that ignited dry foliage. Residents of communities near other fires were not so lucky.

By the end of a week in which the deadliest wildfires in California history scorched more than 100,000 acres in Sonoma County alone, no one except Mike Weihman remembered that one-acre fire less than five miles from Petaluma’s northern city limits.

“We were close by and jumped on it right away,” said Weihman, a Rancho Adobe battalion chief. “If we didn’t, it could have spread down Mecham Hill and into Petaluma. If it got out of control, it would have been extremely difficult to catch.”

All last week, Petaluma residents watched nervously as strong winds spread devastating wildfires into Santa Rosa, the Sonoma Valley and other parts of the county. They opened their homes and emergency shelters to residents of neighboring communities forced to flee the fires, even as they packed their cars with treasured possessions, anticipating their own flight from Petaluma.

But the evacuation orders never came. As fires raged on three sides of Petaluma, the city remained untouched by the flames that destroyed whole communities, leaving many to wonder why this area was spared.

Fire officials credit Petaluma’s topography and landscape, hard working firefighters, as well as last week’s weather conditions and a healthy dose of luck for keeping the city safe. An evacuation plan was in place in case flames had approached the city, but officials never had to make that call.

“In these tremendously large wildfires, there is no rhyme or reason to figure out why this burned or this didn’t burn,” said Hans Henneberque, a retired deputy state Fire Marshal and fire consultant from west Sonoma County. “It’s difficult to put a reason on why Petaluma was saved. God must have had a hand in saving Petaluma.”

Sonoma Mountain, just to the east of Petaluma, may have played a role in protecting Petaluma from fires on the other side of the ridge, Henneberque said. Fires burn quickly uphill, but firefighters on the east side of Sonoma Mountain took a stand, preventing the Nuns fire from cresting the mountain. Their action contained the fire to the Sonoma Valley, which experienced immense devastation in Glen Ellen, Kenwood and the Springs areas.

Strong winds that quickly spread the Tubbs fire into Santa Rosa, destroying whole neighborhoods, never materialized in Petaluma after Sunday night, despite warnings of powerful gusts.

“Did Sonoma Mountain stop the fire? Possibly,” Henneberque said. “Did the winds die down in time? Probably.”

Petaluma’s landscape is also largely devoid of the brushy woods that fueled much of the fires in Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley. Most of Petaluma is surrounded by grass and pasture land, which burns quickly, but not as hot as trees and is easier to contain, according to Nick Silva, chief of the Lakeville Volunteer Fire Department.

During last week’s firestorm, one of the closest fires to Petaluma was to the south along Lakeville Highway near Highway 37. That fire, known as the 37 fire, encroached to within five miles of the southern city limits before Lakeville and other fire departments contained it.

At nearly 2,000 acres, it was by far the largest blaze in the Lakeville coverage area since the department’s founding in 1973, Silva said, but it was largely overlooked during a week that saw at least 188,000 acres burn in the North Bay.

Silva said firefighters like grass fires because they are easy to backfire, a technique where firefighters intentionally burn an area in front of an approaching fire in order to slow down the blaze.

“It’s a lot easier to stop a fire in the grass,” he said. “The 37 fire burned a lot of grass. That’s a lot of the reason why we were able to stop that fire at a smaller area.”

The 37 fire left charred hillsides around Sonoma Raceway, destroyed several barns and damaged one house before firefighters were able to contain it after four days. Part of the reason it burned for so long was because regional fire resources were stretched to the maximum limit on other blazes around the North Bay.

Silva said at most 12 engines worked on the 2,000-acre fire. For comparison, the next largest fire in the Lakeville area, a 300-acre fire in 2015, saw 56 engines responding. When a wind-driven hot spot in the 37 fire flared up last Thursday, it was a reminder of how vulnerable Petaluma was last week.

“If we were not able to stop the fire there, it could have continued up into Petaluma,” Silva said.

While fires burned around Petaluma and local firefighters were deployed to other blazes around the county, the city was at one point last week down to just one fire engine to cover the community, according to Petaluma Fire Chief Leonard Thompson.

He said city officials in the emergency command center had long conversations about what would trigger an evacuation, finally deciding that if the flames reached Adobe Road to the east, it would be time to start moving people.

“The first stance was Adobe Road,” he said. “If it got to that point, we would start the evacuation procedure. It would depend on how fast the fire was traveling and what the winds were doing. We were all ready for evacuations.”

Thompson credited his firefighters and those of other agencies, including thousands from outside the area that came to help, with holding the fire east of Petaluma and keeping the city safe. He said fire officials will be studying this blaze for years and rethinking safe levels of staffing for regional fire agencies.

“We had resources staffed on Sonoma Mountain, and we were ready in case the winds shifted,” he said. “That we held the line there is a tribute to our guys. This was a wake up call for all of us to rethink the amount of resources we need in this area.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)