The 17 large wildfires that have burned more than 115,000 acres in California since Sunday have now been blamed for at least 17 deaths. The fast-moving blazes have destroyed at least 2,000 buildings, many of them in the wine country region of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
At least two of the fires have each burned more than 25,000 acres, propelled by strong winds Sunday night. Conditions eased somewhat Tuesday — but the National Weather Service says high winds could return to the area beginning late Wednesday night, with gusts over 50 mph. The North Bay is under a critical fire alert, the agency says.
The fires produced shocking scenes of destruction in the tourist-friendly stretch north of San Francisco, where many green landscapes have now been replaced by charred trees, cinders and thick smoke. The ferocity of the flames was captured in a video released by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, showing a deputy driving through Franz Valley Road, near where a raging fire entered from Napa County. In the brief footage, glowing cinders litter the road as flames consume trees and structures lining the street.
In posting the video, the sheriff’s department told residents, “This is but one moment in a series of moments that will end up defining the strength of our community through what will be a pinnacle moment in Sonoma County history.”
With heavy smoke posing a health risk, people have been rushing to buy face masks. As member station KQED’s Mina Kim reports, “North Napa Target sold out of face masks” on Monday. Federal officials also warn that dust masks aren’t sufficient to protect against fine particles from wildfire smoke.
The intense fires are being described as unlike anything fire officials recall seeing in the area.
“One of the fires moved more than 16 miles in less than than six hours,” says Jonathan Cox, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “all the way from the Napa Valley over to Santa Rosa. Jumped a six-lane highway and was indiscriminate in its destruction of residential and commercial structures.”
Speaking to NPR’s David Greene, Cox said, “Late season fires are always difficult, because you’re contending with very dry fuel moistures. And along with that, you have the wind event that came through on Sunday through Northern California. For some perspective, it was 50- to 70-mile an hour winds that were in the fire area.”
Describing the fight against a multidimensional event, Cox laid out firefighters’ priorities: “To protect people’s lives and get them out of harm’s way, to protect the structures and also to build containment lines where we do have the opportunities of engagement.”
The McClellan Reload Base, an airstrip that is used to support aerial firefighting efforts, “pumped over 266,000 gallons of fire retardant Monday. Shattering the previous record,” says Cal Fire — the shortened name for the state of Forestry and Fire Protection agency.
Here’s a rundown of some of the largest fires, as of Wednesday morning: In Sonoma and Napa counties, the Tubbs Fire was at 28,000 acres with no containment level cited. In Napa and Solano counties, the Atlas Fire was at 26,000 acres and was only 3 percent contained. In Mendocino County, the Redwood Complex Fire was at 21,000 acres with no containment level. In Yuba County, the Cascade Fire was at 11,685 acres and was 20 percent contained.
As of Tuesday evening, Pacific Gas and Electric Company said that some 75,000 customers were without power, including 50,000 in Santa Rosa and 15,000 in the Napa area. In some cases, the utility has purposefully cut power to prevent lines from endangering first responders. It also cut gas service to more than 44,000 customers, because of the quick-spreading fires.
Officials are telling residents who are under mandatory evacuation orders to stay away until an all-clear order is given. In Santa Rosa, which saw neighborhoods and swaths of land overrun by fire, a curfew remains in effect from 6:45 p.m. to 7:15 a.m.
California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared an emergency in eight counties: Napa, Sonoma, Yuba, Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada and Orange. President Trump has issued a major disaster declaration; the Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing federal disaster assistance to California to bolster state, tribal and local recovery efforts.
The fires have affected thousands of people, forcing evacuation orders for more than 20,000 residents and obliterating homes — in some cases leaving structures on one side of the street intact, while reducing those on the other side to heaps of ash and rubble.
Among those who lost their homes in Santa Rosa: Paula McCallister, who had moved to the area along with her husband less than a year ago. They’re safe — but as seen in photos McCallister shared on Facebook, fire destroyed their house. Her husband snapped the pictures after walking 2 miles to check on their house, beyond security barricades.
McCallister tells NPR’s Morning Edition that she posted the images in part because it has been hard to find details about damage in specific neighborhoods.
“They’re not reporting anything. They’re not telling us, your street from here to here is gone,” she said. “And so I wanted all my neighbors that know me on Facebook to see what happened, and what was gone and what wasn’t gone so that they have some kind of idea what to do next.”
McCallister said that some of those neighbors are the reason she and her husband were able to grab necessities and get out. She says they fled their new house after neighbors walked the streets and knocked on doors, telling people the fire was coming.