Posted: Tuesday, October 10, 2017 – 11:49 AM
Firefighters encouraged by weakening winds were battling 17 large wildfires on Tuesday in California which have left at least 13 people dead, thousands homeless and ravaged the state’s famed wine country.
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in eight counties — including the wine-producing regions of Napa and Sonoma — and said thousands of firefighters had been deployed to fight the blazes.
Seven deaths were reported in Sonoma County, three in Mendocino County, two in Napa County and one in Yuba County and the governor said “emergency responders anticipate the number of fatalities could grow.”
Among the dead in Napa were a couple aged 99 and 100 years old who had been married for 75 years, KTVU-TV said. They were unable to evacuate their home in time.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department said on its Facebook page that it had received 150 missing person reports but was “confident that many of these people will be found safe and reunited with loved ones.”
About 25,000 people have been evacuated in Sonoma County and 5,000 have sought refuge in shelters, the department said.
The fires have torched more than 115,000 acres (46,500 hectares) and destroyed over 2,000 homes and businesses, according to the authorities.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said 17 large fires were continuing to burn Tuesday.
“The winds that fanned these fires Sunday night and Monday morning have decreased significantly, but local winds and dry conditions continue to pose a challenge,” Cal Fire said.
“With the decrease in the winds combined with cooler weather, firefighters made good progress overnight,” it added.
Appealing Monday to President Donald Trump for federal aid, Governor Brown said the “devastation and disruption caused by these fires is extraordinary.
“Thousands have been made homeless.”
- ‘Boom, boom, boom’ -
Maureen Fairchild, a nurse, was working at a hospital in Marin County where some of the evacuees were brought.
“I was working in a memory-impaired unit,” Fairchild told AFP. “We had all these people who were already confused and now they were in an unfamiliar place with all this frenzy going on around them.”
Kris Hammar, who lives in the city of Santa Rosa on the edge of a mandatory evacuation zone, had not yet evacuated but was monitoring maps, wind direction, and fire updates to see if she and her family should bolt.
“The fire is close, very close,” Hammer said. “Everything is in the car, and we are checking constantly to see if anything has changed.”
“There were times at night when my street was like a freeway,” Hammar said. “People evacuating were flying down my street.
“Then, the next day it was deserted.”
Troy Newton, 46, a Sonoma County sheriff’s detective, was among those who fled Santa Rosa, a city of around 175,000 people in Sonoma County.
Newton told The Los Angeles Times he was returning to his home in Santa Rosa when he saw a “growing red snake” of fire.
“I ran into my house and told my wife to get our four-year-old boy ready to leave,” Newton said, before raising the alarm with around 40 neighbors.
“It was boom, boom, boom. Ring the door bell. Boom, boom — until someone inside got the message,” he said.
Many homes in Santa Rosa were razed to the ground and the Hilton Sonoma County Wine Hotel, Fountaingrove Inn and Willi’s Wine Bar reportedly suffered damage.
- Drought declared over in April -
The Hilton Hotel in Santa Rosa said on Facebook that its staff and guests were all safe.
Among the wineries which were affected were William Hill Estate Winery in Napa, Signorello Vineyards, Stags’ Leap and Chimney Rock.
Coffey Park, a sprawling Santa Rosa neighborhood with dozens of homes, was left in ruins.
Pacific Gas & Electric said more than 196,000 customers had initially lost electricity although half had had their power restored.
Governor Brown in April declared the official end of the state’s drought that lasted more than five years.
But California is still dealing with the Santa Ana winds, a meteorological phenomenon which brings dry winds down from the high mountains east of the coastal areas — a recipe for perfect wildfire conditions.
Forest fires are common in the western United States during dry, hot summer months.
Last month, a massive fire described as the biggest in the history of Los Angeles forced hundreds to evacuate their homes.
© Agence France-Presse