The gigantic Kincade Forest Fire in northern California will continue to burn for weeks to come, but the lull of the last few days offers hope for damage control. Journey to the heart of the fire.
Route 128 winds between vineyard-covered hills just north of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. San Francisco is about an hour and a half drive south.
The scenery would be charming, if it were not swirls of smoke coming out of the fields and gray-brown clouds clinging to the mountains. There is a smell of fire in the wood outside, and many people choose to wear a respirator.
Here we are in the southern part of the Kincade fire zone, although there is no flame on the horizon at the moment.
A deceptive aspect, warns firefighter Jim Evans, who says that, hidden in many places, small underground fire are still active.
A very real destruction
A little further along Route 128, at the corner of Alexander Valley Road, the damage caused by the flames is more obvious: a completely destroyed house shows only what little remains of its foundations.
The authorities do not report any fire deaths in this part of California, but the destruction is very real. Firefighters are very busy.
Jim Evans normally works for the Merced fire department, a city of 80,000 in central California. Seven or eight of us volunteered for the forest fires, he says. On a team that has about 60 firefighters in Merced, it seems.
He has committed for two weeks, but he may decide to stay longer. The pace of work is unbridled: some firefighters work relentlessly for 16 or 24 hours in a row before being given a break of a similar duration.
Just a spark
The very dry weather makes the grass suitable for burning. It would be enough of a simple spark.
That’s why firefighting services have taken advantage of the cooler weather and near-zero wind over the past two days to extinguish the burning embers that dot the area affected by the Kincade fire.
At the edge of a small road that follows the meanders of a stream, near the hamlet of Alexander Valley, a sign sends a warning to the residents, which we can not see trace since they had to evacuate: Attention, mow the grass can cause a forest fire!
“It’s enough for the mower to catch a small stone to create a spark,” confirms Jim Evans.
Trees still standing
What is striking in the south of the Kincade fire zone is the number of trees still standing. Extremely strong winds that blew in the night from Sunday to Monday, and have greatly expanded the fire, have probably saved some trees and vines, despite the spread of fire in the undergrowth.
“In some places, the heat has not increased enough for the trees to burn,” explains Jim Evans. In other words, the fire has gone too fast.
That’s what spared the vines too, says the firefighter. Especially since vineyard owners, before fleeing, have triggered their automated sprinklers. The branches and leaves, made wet, did not catch fire.
Several buildings have not had this chance: “Once a house starts to burn, it’s impossible for the fire to stop on its own,” says Evans. According to California Fire Department Cal Fire, “200 structures were destroyed by the Kincade fire.”
This is not the case for many homes under construction, which remain standing, the exposed carpentry, overlooking Route 128. Located in an evacuation notification area, they will replace homes that, in 2017, during the Tubbs fire, were completely razed by the flames.
Unless the winds increase again.