A three-alarm fire in a residential neighborhood in Petaluma burned through 14 homes Tuesday, destroying four of them, just east of Highway 101, authorities said.
The fire started around 3:15 p.m. along the eastside of the freeway, south of East Washington Street, closing down northbound lanes of the freeway and forcing evacuations, according to fire officials. They said something from a vehicle on the freeway ignited brush on the shoulder, and it spread quickly.
"A lot of things can start a fire on the side of the freeway," Petaluma Fire Battallion Chief Jeff Holden said. "Stuff coming out of your exhaust pipe, a faulty catalytic converter will start it."
Neighbor Don Brillhart told his children to retrieve the family pets and make sure the elderly woman living next-door got out of her home OK.
"I mean it moved too quick, but by the time they got here I was like burning my feet because all those embers coming off the trees they were popping," Brillhart said.
The blaze damaged 14 homes, four of which have been designated uninhabitable, officials said. The flames were fueled by euclayptus trees bordering the homes' backyards and the freeway shoulder.
"Those leaves float when they catch on fire," Holden said. "Even a light wind will cast those embers out in front of the fire, and it'll keep spreading."
Petaluma police said 20 homes were evacuated in the area of the fire, along Stuart Drive, east of East Washington Street.
Those evacuated were being told to gather at the Safeway parking lot at the Washington Square shopping center or at the intersection of McKenzie and Cortes streets, police said.
Initially, all traffic was being diverted off north 101 at Lakeville Highway, the CHP said. One lane in the northbound direction was reopened about 4:30 p.m. The second lane reopened about 5:20 p.m.
NBC Bay Area's Terry McSweeney contributed to this report.