Updated Oct. 26, 11 p.m. ET
At around 10 a.m. Saturday morning, the word went out. Sonoma and California officials ordered more than 50,000 people in the county, including the wine country towns of Healdsburg, Windsor and Forestville, to evacuate their homes. By lunchtime, a long line of cars was moving slowly down Highway 101, the main road in the area.
The cause? High winds were forecast to begin around 8 p.m. Those winds, eventually strenghtening to gusts of 60 to 80 mph, could push the Kincade wildfire, previously confined to the sparsely populated hills above already-evacuated Geyserville, to the southwest, into the Knights Valley appellation and eventually into Healdsburg. The Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley appellations lie on the other side of town. Winds will remain strong until Monday.
"We want you to start evacuating now," said Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick at a news conference. "We'd like you to be out of your homes and out of the area before 4 p.m. We'd like to get you out before it's dark."
The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office said it is expected to be the biggest evacuation in the county in the last 26 years. Residents must be out of the area by 4 p.m. Those without cars were gathering at municipal buildings to load buses. Around sundown, the mandatory evacuation zone was extended all the way west to the Pacific Coast, through the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations, forcing an additional 35,000 people to flee. The evacuation warning zone was extended to the southeast into Napa Valley as far as Calistoga, meaning residents there should be prepared to leave at a moment's notice.
"We are prioritizing safety right now for what is potentially the worst-case-scenario," said Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox. Firefighter crews not engaged in trying to contain the blaze are stationing themselves in towns throughout the region in case more fires break out. They received briefings this morning warning them to prepare for a difficult, dangerous night. According to Cal Fire, by Saturday afternoon, there were 2,830 firefighters battling the flames, supported by 251 engines, 25 water tenders, 10 helicopters and 50 bulldozers.
To make matters more difficult, the local utility PG&E is expected to cut power to both Sonoma and Napa counties at 5 p.m. Pacific Time, in hopes of preventing more downed electrical lines during the winds and potentially sparking more fires. The company has stated it believes a downed transmission line above Geyserville sparked this blaze.
For wineries in the region, it is a time to put safety first. Across the region, vintners have closed their doors as their teams leave. It comes at a time when some wines are still fermenting and a small amount of fruit is still hanging in the vineyards. It may be days before winery owners can return. And high winds are forecast to return in the middle of next week.
—With reporting by Augustus Weed, Tim Fish and Peter Lane.