More Northern Californians were chased out of their homes Tuesday by lightning-sparked wildfires that burned out of control in several counties amid a punishing heat wave that pushed temperatures into the triple digits.
Many of the wildfires were caused by the extreme heat wave accompanied by unusual thunderstorms, leading to lightning touching down hundreds of times in the North Bay — all while the ongoing pandemic has complicated efforts to shelter displaced residents.
Sonoma, San Mateo, Napa, Butte, Nevada and Monterey counties all issued warnings or mandatory evacuations — some expanding existing orders — for certain communities. Gov. Gavin Newsom responded to the two dozen-plus fires across the state Tuesday afternoon by declaring a state of emergency, allowing California to receive mutual aid from other states and secure federal grants.
The Hennessey Fire, northeast of St. Helena in Napa County, had grown to 2,700 acres by Tuesday morning, threatening hundreds of structures, including an estimated 400 residents of Berryessa Estates.
It was one of three fires identified as part of the LNU Lightning Complex, which also included the Gamble Fire and the 15-10 Fire. Together the blazes had burned more than 12,000 acres in Napa County.
The 15-10 fire threatened communities along Highway 128 below Lake Berryessa.
Near the Hennessey Fire farther north, Gail Bickett, 80, said she could see the black smoke, with the fire burning behind houses across the road as she loaded up her truck to evacuate.
“I have sweat pouring down me,” she said, out of breath as she loaded up her three dogs, dog food and snacks, and phones. Bickett’s husband was getting their motor home started before heading to the Pope Valley Farm Center in St. Helena.
Napa County sheriff’s deputies were already in the neighborhood, urging residents to leave the area, Bickett said, adding that she had already sent an alert to her neighbors via an emergency phone system.
“It’s scary,” she said. “It’s overwhelming.”
Bickett is a veteran of the process. This was her fourth time evacuating, but she said she had just returned from town when she was told to flee. The chickens and her uncatchable, in-hiding cats would stay behind, she said.
Photos and mementos were not on her emergency packing list.
“Oh, hell no,” she said, laughing and citing overflowing and disorganized drawers. “I can’t.”
The evacuations affected residents on the north side of Napa County, including Spanish Valley and Snell Valley and Butts Canyon roads.
The Berryessa Estates has nearly 200 single-family homes with close to 400 residents, said the community’s board president, Garth MacDonald. The area otherwise is relatively rural, he said.
Fire officials “were concerned about the embers that might float from the fire,” said MacDonald, who has a home in the community but lives in Sacramento. “They’re just taking every precaution.”
By Tuesday morning, however, flames from the Hennessey Fire had crept into the eastern hills of Nichelini Vineyards, a 600-acre property in Napa’s remote Chiles Valley area.
So far, the grapevines or buildings were safe — but the Sunseri family feared that it’s only a matter of time until the blaze impacts the most important parts of the property, which has been in the family for 130 years.
For a large property in the rural, eastern outskirts of Napa County, Nichelini Vineyards has been remarkably fortunate. A wildfire has never caused damage to house and building since they were built in 1890, said Aimée Sunseri. The family has never missed a harvest yet, not even during Prohibition.
“We were a little on the illegal side” in those years, Sunseri said. “We got a couple tickets.”
If all goes well, Sunseri will begin Nichelini’s 130th harvest next week, with Sauvignon Blanc.
“Hopefully we will not break our family tradition,” she said
Napa County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza, who represents the areas evacuated due to the Hennessey Fire, said the primary goal was to have enough shelter capacity to provide safety to residents — all in the middle of a pandemic.
“We understand the pandemic we’re in and public health is the No. 1 priority,” he said, noting that personal protective items would be made available to those evacuating.
The Hennessey Fire remained at zero containment Tuesday as did the Gamble Fire, near Brooks (Yolo County), which had grown to 5,000 acres, Cal Fire officials said.
A new fire near Guerneville, dubbed the 13-4 Fire, on Tuesday led Sonoma County officials to send out an evacuation warning at 11:50 a.m. covering the area north of Austin Creek Recreational Area, east of The Cedars, west of the end of Mill Creek Road and south of Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road.
A third lightning fire in the North Bay, the 15-10 Fire, near Berryessa-Knoxville Road, had consumed 4,500 acres as of Tuesday morning and was also uncontained, according to Cal Fire.
Cal Fire also reported several lightning fires in the East Bay and South Bay hills that had consumed 25,000 acres, burning in five counties. Firefighters had no containment by Tuesday morning. Agency officials also issued evacuation warnings for areas near Loma Mar and Dearborn Park in the southern part of San Mateo County.
In Butte County, firefighters continued battling multiple fires caused by 1,500 lightning strikes that hit Monday morning. The county Sheriff’s Office ordered evacuations Monday afternoon for several roads north of the Feather River.
Additional evacuations in Monterey County were caused by the River Fire, and warnings went out for the Jones Fire in Nevada County and in Sierra County for the Loyalton Fire.
Conditions on Tuesday afternoon and evening were expected to remain difficult for firefighters, with temperatures soaring past 100 in the North Bay. An excessive heat warning was expected to remain in effect until Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Esther Mobley contributed to this story.