Deadly California wildfires force thousands to evacuate
An onslaught of wildfires across a wide swath 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.
At least 10 were dead, at least 100 injured and at least 1,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed, authorities said.
All three figures were expected to surge in the coming days as more information is reported.
Taken as a group, the fires are already among the deadliest in California history.
Residents who gathered at emergency shelters and grocery stores 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 neighborhood 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 on Oct. 9, when a friend sent him a photo of what was left: a smoldering heap of burnt metal and debris.
Some of the largest of the 14 blazes burning over a 200-mile region were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. They sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 96 kilometers away.
Sonoma County said it has received more than 100 missing-person reports as family and friends scramble to locate loved ones.
The reports have come via calls to a hotline the county set up for the missing, according to Scott Alonso, communications director for Sonoma County.
It's possible that many or most of the missing are safe but simply can’t be reached because of the widespread loss of cell service and other communications. Much of the damage was in Santa Rosa, a far larger and more developed city than usually finds itself at the mercy of a wildfire. The city is home to 175,000 residents, including both the wine-country wealthy and the working class.
The flames were unforgiving to both groups. Hundreds of homes of all sizes were leveled by flames so hot they melted the glass off of cars and turned aluminum 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 in minutes along with his wife, two daughters, and a son just over 2 weeks old.
“I can’t shake hearing people scream in terror as the flames barreled down on us,” Lowry said.
His family and another evacuating with them tried to take U.S. 101 to evacuate but found it blocked by flames, and had to take country roads to get to the family friends who took them in. A 145-kilometer stretch of the highway is framed by the flames and a major concern overnight, said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services.
Highway 12, which winds through the heart of wine country, was also rendered unusable by the flames.
“Sonoma and Napa counties have been hit very hard,” Alexander said.
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 state home for the severely disabled when flames reached one side of the center’s sprawling campus in the historic Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen.