SONOMA VALLEY, Calif. — For eight days, Debbie Cooper has been fighting the Adobe fire with buckets while in bedroom slippers. As dawn broke Monday, she was joined by hundreds of firefighters from across the state and the Pacific Northwest.
That might not be enough. Her shingle-roof home sits at the narrow entrance to Adobe Canyon, a steep channel for a wildfire still pushing its forest perimeters. Crews have been holding it off, crammed tight in the canyon’s narrow walls, for several long days.
Cooper is grateful, if defiant of their requests to leave the house she moved into only a month ago. But as firetrucks packed into her two-lane street Monday morning, she realized that her time as a holdout is probably up.
“Now it’s in the canyon,” said Cooper, who is 65 and has lived in this valley with her husband, John, for more than three decades, and if it rips down through there, they’re in trouble. “They have told me they will put everything they’ve got on this today. They’ll make a stand here.”
While firefighters have made gains in containing more than a dozen fires in Northern California during the past week, here in the Valley of the Moon, the burn risk is still high. The fire’s advance from the peaks of Sugar Loaf and Hood mountains has been steady, despite the gentle wind.
As the sun rose Monday, exhausted firefighters changed shifts in a thick, ground-level smoke. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials organized lines at the edge of the valley floor as the blaze threatened to roar down through windblown canyons. Dozens of homes and several name-brand vineyards — Landmark, St. Francis, La Rochelle — stand in its path.
More than 200,000 acres in a cluster of counties north of San Francisco have burned since fires sparked on a blustery night eight days ago. California officials say 41 people have died and more than 3,500 buildings have burned, most of them houses.
There are signs of progress. Sonoma County officials began lifting mandatory evacuation orders Monday for several neighborhoods on the eastern edge of Santa Rosa, where the deadly Tubbs fire blew into the city more than a week ago.
The stand being made here since mid-Monday has displayed the tenacity of the firefighters on this blaze and the delicate planning involved in coordinating the air campaign against the flames, an intensive effort involving jumbo jets, helicopters and propeller planes.
But the fire’s stubborn advance also highlights the conditions working against its containment: hillsides of oak and pine that are dry as tinder, a rugged topography often unnavigable by large teams and trucks, and a shifting wind that will decide the fate of this valley regardless of the resources in place now.
“We’re just trying to prepare these houses as best we can with the limited resources we have,” said Brian Gentis, part of a fire crew from eastern Oregon that drove in with two engines last week. “There’s just so much to do.”
Gentis and a dozen others worked up through Adobe Canyon as flames began appearing on the ridgelines above. “Prepping” houses means clearing the branches, leaves and other landscaping from home sites — a more deliberate version of routine weekend yard care.
Using shovels and picks, the group dug trenches and built dirt berms around the perimeters of homes, Italianate mansions and one-story ranch styles.
“There are a couple crews up there now, but a bunch are being chased out by the fire,” said Gary Whatley, working alongside Gentis at the end of a 24-hour shift. “It’s really tricky.”
Along the northern slope of this valley, wisps of smoke from hot spots appear for miles. Most fizzle after a few hours, just flickering worries for firefighters.
But during the past 36 hours, those small flare-ups, caused mostly by embers carried from the main blaze miles away, have connected in lines along ridge tops from the grand, chateau-style Ledson Winery east to Adobe Canyon Road.
Only a few holdouts remain in the valley to watch the excruciating advance and retreat of the fire — one minute a terrifying line of flames 200 feet high flaring above the vineyards, then nothing but a churning column of smoke.
Planes, sometimes as many as five within minutes, swoop in just above the tree line to hit the flames with retardant, which leaves a brilliant pink slash across the sky as it falls.
The smoke ranges in color, offering evidence of what is burning. There are shades of yellow and orange, whites and grays. As the fire burned high in the valley late Sunday afternoon, the flames burned white, then sent up thick columns of black smoke, the telltale sign that a house or a barn or a warehouse full of wine casks had ignited.
Fire crews from Pasadena, Burbank and Glendale — Southern California cities with a fire burning in Orange County not far away — have been working along the valley walls. Their participation here shows the strain on state firefighting resources.
One crew, comprising about two dozen minimum-security inmates from a nearby detention camp, rested between deployments in a roadside field. The voluntary program provides training, $1 a day in pay, and double the credits toward good-behavior early release.
“We’re not as mobile as some of the others, given the trucks we’re using,” said a Cal Fire official supervising the crew, preparing to head out to clear areas between two fires to prevent them from joining.
That kind of deployment decision has been a challenging one in recent days for fire officials. While allowing separate fires to unite can amplify their power, it also reduces the overall perimeter that firefighters must carve out to contain the blaze.
Along Adobe Canyon Road, the decisions Monday were less strategic and more immediately tactical: how to keep the growing fire from reaching the flats.
Battalion leaders spread maps on the ash-covered hood of a red Dodge Durango, plotting how best to get crews into the narrow spaces up the hillside. Trucks returning to the valley from the blaze headed toward tents set up in a pasture-turned-staging area. Sleep awaited in the smoke.
“We’ll see where they want us,” said Ben Sherlock, idling in a Washington state Department of Natural Resources truck, five of his crew in the cab with him.
Two teams from Washington state arrived a few days into these fires. Sherlock and the others finished a 24-hour shift early Sunday and slept through the night, preparing as the sun rose Monday for a long day in the canyon.
“There’s a lot of them up there right now,” he said. “It’s tight, so they’ll get us up when they feel like it’s safe to do so.”
For Cooper and her husband, the day broke with a sense of decisiveness; one way or the other, the fate of their home would likely be determined.
Late on the night of Oct. 8, as fire glowed in the valley above the Cooper home, a power line blew down outside their neighbor’s house. A small fire immediately blazed up, adding to a cascade of embers arcing down from the huge fire above them.
“It was like a waterfall,” Cooper said. “I know what hell is. That was hell.”
She and her husband began dousing hot spots with five-gallon buckets, filled from another neighbor’s pool. She was still in sleepwear, slippers on her feet. But she darted around her property, stomping out flames as they popped up.
The house of the Coopers next door — no relation — burned to the ground. So did the Lance home across the street, next to the La Rochelle vineyard. Charred here and there, her house survived the night, as the fire rolled back with the wind into the hills.
Every day since, firefighters have asked her to leave. She has refused. But on Monday, the smoke-clouded red sun above her and the flames at the head of the valley had Cooper reconsidering.
“They just came by to ask me again,” she said. “They also know I’ve lost it. I’m exhausted.”