Wildfires torch California wine country; at least 17 dead

Updated October 10, 2017 - 9:31 pm

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The flames that raced across California wine country left little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. House after house is gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark sites that were once family homes.

The wildfires burned so hot that windows and tire rims melted off cars, leaving many vehicles resting on their steel axles. In one driveway, the glass backboard of a basketball hoop melted, dripped and solidified like a mangled icicle.

Newly homeless residents of Northern California took stock of their shattered lives Tuesday while the blazes that have killed at least 17 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses kept burning. Hundreds more firefighters joined the battle against the uncontained flames.

“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. At least 185 people were injured during the blazes that started Sunday night. Nearly 200 people were reported missing in Sonoma County alone.


 

Seventeen wildfires raged Tuesday across parts of seven counties. Fire crews and other resources were being rushed in from other parts of the state and Nevada.

More than 240 members of the California National Guard helped ferry fuel to first responders because so many gas stations were without power. Guard members were also helping with medical evacuations and security at evacuation centers, said Maj. Gen. David Baldwin.

In addition to knocking out electricity, the blazes damaged or destroyed 77 cellular sites, disrupting communication services that officials were rushing to restore, said Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci.

The fires that started Sunday night moved so quickly that thousands of people were forced to flee with only a few minutes of warning. Some did not get out in time.

“It’s literally like it exploded. These people ran out of their homes literally with minutes notice, barely with the clothes on their back,” Pimlott said, adding that authorities didn’t have time to give more notice. “They burned so quickly, there was not time to notify everybody.”

Among the victims were 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his wife, Sara, who was 98. The couple was married for 75 years and lived in a residential neighborhood in Napa.

Their son, Mike Rippey, said he and his siblings couldn’t imagine how either parent would have navigated life if just one had survived the flames.

“We knew there’s no way they would ever be happy, whoever was the last one. So they went together, and that’s the way it worked,” he said stoically.


 

A thick, smoky haze cloaked much of Napa and Sonoma counties, where neighborhoods hit by the fires were completely leveled. Authorities warned residents not to return to their houses for safety reasons, citing the risk of exposed electrical and gas lines and unstable structures including trees.

About 3,200 people were staying in 28 shelters across Napa and Sonoma counties.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, or what’s happening at home,” said Santa Rosa evacuee Kathy Ruiz, who had found her way to a center at Sonoma County Fairgrounds. “That’s what I’m starting to think about now, am I going to have a home to go back to?”

In the Santa Rosa suburb known as Coffey Park, Robyn Pellegrini let out a cry of grief as she approached the smoldering ruins of the duplex she had shared with her husband and their 6-year-old son. Daniel Pellegrini held his wife before they went searching for something they could salvage for their child.

With bare hands, they sifted through the remains of the exterior wall, which had collapsed into dust inside the house and covered all the other debris in their boy’s room. They found a stuffed animal — charred but still recognizable as a turtle. Robyn Pellegrini let out joyful gasps when they found pieces of his rock collection.

A young boy across the street, whose home was spared, brought over one of his own stuffed animals to share.

“You lose all your photos,” said Tony Pellegrini, Daniel’s father. “You feel like you lost a part of your life.”

Officials hoped cooler weather and lighter winds would help crews get a handle on the fires.

“The weather has been working in our favor, but it doesn’t mean it will stay that way,” said Brad Alexander, a spokesman of the governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

In Washington, President Donald Trump said he spoke with Gov. Jerry Brown to “let him know that the federal government will stand with the people of California. And we will be there for you in this time of terrible tragedy and need.”

The government declared a disaster, which should give the state help putting out the flames.

More than 400 miles away from the wine-making region, flames imperiled parts of Southern California, too.

A fire in northeastern Orange County threatened thousands of homes Monday, turned the sky over Disneyland a hazy orange and rained ash on neighborhoods.


 

By Tuesday evening, however, winds had died and temperatures were cooler. Most evacuations were lifted in Anaheim, Orange and Tustin, with just a few roads still off-limits.

Crews managed to stop the fire from growing and had surrounded more than a quarter of the fire area.

However, fire engines were still protecting neighborhoods around the clock.

“We can’t afford to let one spark, one ember get into any of these homes,” Orange County fire Capt. Larry Kurtz said.

Some of the largest blazes in Northern California were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. The fires sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 60 miles away.

Sonoma County established a hotline to help families looking for missing loved ones. It’s possible that many of the people reported missing were safe but simply could not be reached because of the widespread loss of cellphone 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 people, including wine-country wealthy and the working class.

It was unusual for so many fires to take off at the same time. Other than the windy conditions that helped drive them all, there was no known connection between the blazes, and authorities have not cited a cause for any of them.

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