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Sonoma County firefighters heading south to help

Firefighters from Bennet Valley, Santa Rosa, Gold Ridge and Petaluma meet in the parking lot at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds before heading south to help combat the fires in Ventura County. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

RANDI ROSSMANN AND CHRISTI WARREN,

Five Sonoma County fire engines mustered Tuesday afternoon at the Petaluma fairgrounds, preparing to travel to the rampaging Southern California fires.

The call to help comes just weeks after firefighters from around the state and elsewhere finished battling Sonoma County’s historically devastating and deadly blazes, and local fire agencies returned to normal schedules. Now, 22 local firefighters will spend about two weeks helping fight the state’s most recent late‑season mega-fires and pay back the effort of hundreds of Southern California firefighters who were in Sonoma County for much of October.

The team is made up of Santa Rosa, Sonoma Valley, Gold Ridge, Forestville and Bennett Valley firefighters, led by veteran Santa Rosa fire Capt. Jack Thomas and assistant strike team leader Santa Rosa Capt. Steve Suter.

They’ll likely be deployed somewhere in Ventura County or Los Angeles where wind-driven fires have burned more than 60,000 acres in roughly 12 hours, according to Cal Fire. Updates show the Southern California fires as less destructive than Sonoma County’s disaster but still eerily reminiscent: fast moving blazes pushed by fierce hot winds, thousands evacuated, long lists of school and road closures, and at least one hospital emptied, and hundreds of buildings burned.

Local fire crews awoke Tuesday to fire news reports and began assessing who was available to go if called.

“We have a crew ready to go,” Sonoma Valley fire Battalion Chief Bob Norrbom said early Tuesday. “We’ve done it before. We’ve sent some closer to Christmas. We’ve gone on some Thanksgiving runs.”

Cal Fire in this region sent five urban firefighting engines and two dozers, plus more than 60 firefighters and a team of large fire managers.

The local fire season is officially over. But Southern California has a history of late‑season fires with its hot, musclebound Santa Ana winds, little rain and dry terrain.

The difference between the fires that roared through the North Coast and the ones currently rampaging in Southern California is that locally, the winds mostly died down after that first night, said Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean. In Southern California, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“We’re dealing with Santa Ana winds that have not stopped blowing,” he said. “The Tubbs fire and all those fires we had, those had a really big push overnight, and the winds did blow a little bit after that, but nothing compared to what we’re dealing with in the south.”

He said winds were expected to pick back up overnight Tuesday and gusts up to 80 mph were expected to return to the region on Thursday. The conditions, the dry vegetation and the terrain are making him feel “uncomfortable” about the firefight to come, he said.

“This is Dec. 5 — Yah, there’s a feeling of, this shouldn’t be happening,” he said.