Residents on edge as fire danger, power shutoffs likely for weekend

A spark from landscaping work set off a fire and a big response in Sonoma County Thursday afternoon, just ahead of a weekend that is supposed to be dry and windy and full of fire danger. 

And with temperatures and wind increasing, the National Weather Service has issued a fire weather watch for the North Bay hills beginning Saturday morning and continuing through Monday evening. The warning extends to the East Bay hills and interior valleys as well as the Diablo Range. PG&E has already warned they may have to shut off power if the winds get too strong. 

Firefighters want this fire to serve as a warning to residents, especially before heading into the weekend: Do not mow or trim at midday, do so in the cool, damp morning hours when it's safer.

"Surreal, I just couldn't believe it was happening four weeks after we moved back in," said Joshua Weil, whose landscaper saw the fire start with a puff of smoke on a neighbor's property.

Weil lives on Ursuline Road, in the hills above the Larkfield-Wikiup neighborhoods north of Santa Rosa.

It's an area that lost 1,400 homes in the Tubbs Firestorm of 2017, so sirens and smoke rising hit a nerve with residents.

"We started with the Tubbs Fire and then the Kincaid Fire and the recent Walbridge Fire," said Sonoma County Fire Battalion Chief Robert Johnson.

"The people in this area have a much greater awareness and sensitivity to fire, and that's as it should be."

An aggressive response - ground crews and air attack-  kept the fire at 12 acres.

Winds were light, but the blaze still raced through a drainage and upslope, getting within 150 feet of Weil's new house.

"I was angry, I felt anger that we've just put this house together, just moved in, and how could this be happening now?," said Weil.

Added his wife Claire Mollard, "It was 1,053 days to build this house and within four weeks we certainly didn't want it to go."

Some residents, well-versed in fire response, raced up the hill to knock on doors and help neighbors any way they could.

"It doesn't take much for that burned vegetation to regrow and provide fuel again, this is a reminder to everybody," said Brad Sherwood, who lost his Larkfield Estates home to the 2017 disaster.

Sherwood posted live updates on his Facebook page throughout the firefight, knowing that his jittery community would be hungry for information.

"I found one elderly neighbor in her backyard with the garden hose in her hand, weeping and crying," said SherwooD. "She was in total shock, as we all were, that fire was once again in our neighborhood."

Ironically, the fire was apparently started accidentally by a landscaper trimming vegetation for fire prevention.

"We had a weed-eater guy here trying to get the weeds down in case of a fire and I think it sparked something on the rocks," said Ursuline Road resident Cindy Clopton, whose home was spared in 2017.

"He does it every year and I don't know what happened this time, we've never had a problem before," added Clopton.

With the fire out in about 90 minutes, there were no evacuations.

For the Weil-Mollard household, it was a run-through as they retrieved their go-bags, grabbed photos, computers and pets just in case.

Their new house is made of stucco, not wood, and has a concrete tile roof, eaves closed to keep embers out, and landscaping not likely to ignite.

It is as fire-resistant as they could make it, just like themselves.

"One thing you learn from a fire is that you can say goodbye to a lot of things, but it's the living things you want to save," said Mollard.

KTVU's Elissa Harrington contributed to this report.