California wildfires: 10 killed in 'unprecedented' wine country blaze
Monday - 09/10/2017 20:10
Wildfires destroy 1,500 structures and large swaths of northern California wine country as powerful winds fuel ‘an inferno like you’ve never seen before’
Ten people have died in northern California after what officials are describing as an “unprecedented” wild fire that has already destroyed 1,500 structures and devastated large swathes of wine country.
Amy Head, the fire captain spokesperson for CalFire, the state agency responsible for fire protection, confirmed the number of fatalities late on Monday.
“We often have multiple fires going on, but the majority of them all started right around same time period, same time of night,” she told the Guardian.
California governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties because of wildfires, which are not yet contained, and are threatening thousands of homes.
The Sonoma County sheriff’s office tweeted Monday that seven fire-related deaths were reported from fires there. California fire officials reported earlier that two people died in Napa County and one died in Mendocino County.
The wildfires, whipped by powerful winds early on Monday, sent residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned.
Around 20,000 people have been evacuated. Officials say the high winds are hampering firefighting efforts in the region about 140 miles (225 kilometers) north of San Francisco.
“It was an inferno like you’ve never seen before,” said Marian Williams, who caravanned with neighbors through flames before dawn as one of the wildfires reached the vineyards and ridges at her small Sonoma County town of Kenwood.
Williams could feel the heat of her fire through the car as she fled. “Trees were on fire like torches,” she said.
Mandatory evacuations were ordered in counties north of San Francisco Bay and elsewhere after blazes broke out late on Sunday.
Head, the CalFire official, said the fires were likely linked to a warming climate. “It has been hotter, it has been drier, our fire seasons have been longer, fires are burning more intensely, which is a direct correlation to the climate changing,” she said.
With so many fires, residents of Sonoma County struggled to figure out what roads to take, finding downed trees or flames blocking some routes.
Fires also burned just to the east in the Napa County wine country as well as in Yuba, Butte and Nevada counties all north of the state capital. Cal Fire tweeted that as many as 8,000 homes were threatened in Nevada County, which lies on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.
Smoke was thick in San Francisco, 60 miles (96km) south of the Sonoma County fire.
Sonoma County resident John Dean was driving home early on Monday when “I looked over and saw a house on fire” along the road. Soon he saw more houses engulfed in flames.
“I mean blazing, falling down on fire,” he said.
Dean sped to his Kenwood home, alerted neighbors, and fled to the town of Sonoma. He was one of hundreds of evacuees who streamed into a 24-hour Safeway market overnight, while authorities set up an official evacuation center.
Maureen McGowan was house-sitting for a brother near Kenwood, and said both of the homes on his property were on fire when she left. At the Safeway, she pointed to her feet, still in slippers. She had fled so fast that she hadn’t put on her shoes.
Belia Ramos, chairwoman of the Napa County board of supervisors, said officials did not yet have a count on how many properties were affected, either by the fire directly or by evacuations.
“We’re focusing on making evacuations and trying to keep people safe. We are not prepared to start counting. Certainly with day just breaking now, we are starting to see the structures that are affected,” she said shortly after sunrise.
“The gusts are tremendous and it’s what makes this fire unpredictable. It’s something that we’re having to be very cautious about,” she said.
Emergency lines were inundated with callers reporting smoke in the area, prompting officials to ask that the public “only use 911 if they see actual unattended flames, or are having another emergency”.
The National Weather Service said widespread wind gusts between 35mph and 50mph were observed in the north San Francisco Bay region and isolated spots hit 70mph. The winds were expected to subside at midday.
Community centers, the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and other local centers were opened for evacuees.