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‘Pure devastation’: toll of California fires rises to 15 dead, with 2,000 buildings destroyed

Hundreds of people have also been reported missing, but they may be unaccounted for in the evacuation process

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 October, 2017, 10:09pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 9:45am

An onslaught of bush fires across a wide swathe of Northern California broke out almost simultaneously then grew exponentially, swallowing up properties from wineries to trailer parks and tearing through both tiny rural towns and urban subdivisions.

By Tuesday evening, at least 15 were dead, more than 180 injured and at least 2,000 homes and businesses destroyed, authorities said. All three figures were expected to surge in the coming days as more information is reported.

“This is just pure devastation, and it’s going to take us a while to get out and comb through all of this,” said Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He said the state had “several days of fire weather conditions to come.”

The wildfires already rank among the five deadliest in California history, and officials expected the death toll to increase as the scope of destruction becomes clear. Some 185 people were injured during the blazes that started Sunday night. Nearly 200 people were reported missing in Sonoma County alone, but some may be unaccounted for in the process of evacuation.

Firefighters were still battling 15 fires on Tuesday after reduced winds late on Monday helped to control the flames, said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for the governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

However, the death toll could still rise, he warned.

Schools and colleges near the fires cancelled Tuesday’s classes and two hospitals in Sonoma County were forced to evacuate, state officials said.

Much of the damage was in California’s wine country north of San Francisco. Sonoma County bore the brunt of the fatalities, with seven fire-related deaths confirmed, according to the sheriff’s department. Two people died in Napa County and one in Mendocino County, officials said. An 11th death was reported in Yuba County, NBC News reported.

Some 20,000 people have been evacuated from their homes since Sunday, officials said, while CNN reported that more than 100 people had been treated for fire-related injuries, including burns and smoke inhalation.

Sonoma County said it has received more than 100 missing-person reports as family and friends scramble to locate loved ones.

The fires broke out over the weekend and were fanned by high temperatures and dry conditions. They quickly spread across some 29,542 hectares, fire officials said, and sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 96km away.

The largest fire, covering 210 sq km across Napa and Sonoma counties. The status of the grape crop currently being harvested in the area remained unclear.

In addition to potential damage to vineyards from fire itself, experts said sustained exposure to heavy smoke could taint unpicked grapes.

Fred Oliai, 47, owner of the Alta Napa Valley Winery, said winemakers were nervous.

“You can’t see anything,” he said in a telephone interview. “The smoke is very dense.”

Oliai had not been able to get close enough to his vineyards to see if flames reached his property.

“We got our grapes in last week but others still have grapes hanging,” he said.

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and five other counties.

That included Orange County in Southern California, where a bush fire on Monday destroyed at least a half-dozen homes in the affluent Anaheim Hills neighbourhood, and forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents, authorities said.

I can’t shake hearing people scream in terror as the flames barrelled down on us
Noah Lowry

Residents who gathered at emergency shelters and grocery stores on Monday said they were shocked by the speed and ferocity of the flames. They recalled all the possessions they had left behind and were lost.

“All that good stuff, I’m never going to see it again,” said Jeff Okrepkie, who fled his neighbourhood in Santa Rosa knowing it was probably the last time he would see his home of the past five years standing.

His worst fears were confirmed when a friend sent him a photo of what was left: a smouldering heap of burnt metal and debris.

Much of the damage was in Santa Rosa, a city home to 175,000 people.

Hundreds of homes in the wealthy city were levelled by flames so hot they melted the glass off cars and turned aluminium wheels into liquid.

Former San Francisco Giants pitcher Noah Lowry, who now runs an outdoor sporting goods store in Santa Rosa, was forced to flee within minutes along with his wife, two daughters, and a two-week-old son.

“I can’t shake hearing people scream in terror as the flames barrelled down on us,” Lowry said.

Many of the main roads and motorways leading out of the region were blocked by flames and unusable, forcing residents to use country roads to flee the inferno.

The ferocity of the flames forced authorities to focus primarily on getting people out safely, even if it meant abandoning structures to the fire.

Firefighters rushed to a home for the severely disabled when flames reached one side of the centre’s sprawling campus in the historic Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen.

Crews got more than 200 people out of the threatened buildings, one firefighter said, as flames closed within a few metres.

Fires from ruptured gas lines dotted the landscape Santa Rosa as fire trucks raced to battle the blaze.

The flames were fickle in some corners of the city. One hillside home remained unscathed while a dozen surrounding it were destroyed.

Kim Hoe, a 33-year-old tech worker from Penang, Malaysia, was staying at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, which was gutted by flames. He said the power went out around 1am, and he and his colleagues started packing up when someone knocked on the door and told them to run.

“We just had to run and run. It was full of smoke. We could barely breathe,” Hoe said.

Most of the injured were treated for smoke inhalation, according to St. Joseph Health, which operates hospitals in the Santa Rosa area. Two were in critical condition and one was in serious condition. The number of injured is expected to climb as information comes in for all the other areas affected by the firestorm consuming the state.

October has generally been the most destructive time of year for California fires. However the simultaneous sparking of the latest blazes is unusual.

Other than the windy conditions that helped drive them all, there was no known connection between the fires, and no cause has been released for any of them.

But the conditions late on Monday and early Tuesday were calmer than they were 24 hours earlier, bringing hopes of progress.

Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the fire areas, and asked the federal government to do the same.

Vice-President Mike Pence, who is visiting California, said at an event near Sacramento that the federal government stands with California as it takes on the blazes, but he made no specific promises.

To the south in Orange County, more than 5,000 homes were evacuated because of a fire in the Anaheim area.

Reuters and Associated Press