Wildfires rip through California wine country, leaving 10 dead and destroying at least 1,500 homes

AP

Ten people have been reported killed as wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through California wine country Monday, destroying at least 1,500 homes and businesses and sending thousands fleeing as flames raged unchecked through high-end resorts, grocery stores and tree-lined neighborhoods.

As he fled through the ember-strewn streets of his neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Jeff Okrepkie knew it was probably the last time he would see his home of the past five years standing.

His worst fears were confirmed Monday morning, when a friend sent him a photo of what was left: a smoldering heap of burnt metal and debris.

“We live in the valley, where it’s concrete and strip malls and hotels and supermarkets,” Okrepkie said. “The last thing you think is a forest fire is going to come and wipe us out.”

At least three people had died and two were seriously injured in the blazes that started on Sunday, state fire officials said earlier.

The flames were burning “at explosive rates” because of 50 mph winds, said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Fourteen large fires were burning, spread over a 200-mile region north of San Francisco from Napa in the south to Redding in the north. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties.

It was unusual to have so many fires take off at the same time, fire officials said, though October has generally been the most destructive time of year for California wildfires.

The ferocity of the flames forced authorities to focus primarily on getting people out safely, even if it meant abandoning structures to the fire. The fire area covered more than 100 sq. miles (160 sq. km) over eight counties.

Elsewhere in the state, a fire churning through canyons in hilly neighborhoods of Orange County in Southern California burned multiple homes and forced residents of about 1,000 homes to evacuate.

Some of the largest blazes 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 60 miles (96 km) away. What caused the blazes was not known.

Fires also burned in Yuba, Butte and Nevada counties — all north of the state capital.

The inferno blackened miles along one of the main gateways into wine country, State Highway 12 into Sonoma County. Wooden fence posts and guard rails burned fiercely. Thick smoke roiled from one winery, JR Cohn.

The fires also damaged the Silverado Resort in Napa and a Hilton hotel in Santa Rosa, the largest city in the fire area, with a population of about 175,000.

Kim Hoe, a 33-year-old tech worker from Penang, Malaysia, was staying at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, which was gutted by flames. He said the power went out around 1 a.m., and he and his colleagues started packing up when someone knocked on the door and told them to run.

“We just had to run and run. It was full of smoke. We could barely breathe. It was dangerous,” Hoe said.

They returned in the morning to find the hotel had been destroyed along with most of their possessions. Hoe was relieved he had taken his passport and a few essential items.

Santa Rosa lost a Kmart, restaurants and an unknown number of businesses and homes. The blaze shut down schools and forced more than 200 patients at two city hospitals to evacuate.

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. Emergency workers leapt from their cars to aid in the evacuation. Crews got the more than 200 patients from the threatened buildings, one firefighter said, as flames closed within a few dozen feet.

Residents throughout the area described a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames.

Mike Turpen, 38, was at a bar in Glen Ellen early Monday when a stranger wearing a smoke mask ran in and yelled that there was a fire. Turpen raced home through flames in his Ford F-250.

“It was like Armageddon was on,” Turpen said. “Every branch of every tree was on fire.”

He woke later to find all his neighbors’ homes on fire, but stayed behind to try to defend his own rental home.

By late morning, Turpen, wearing shorts, a kerchief mask and goggles, was the last man standing for miles along one abandoned road. His yard and all those around him were burned, smoking and still flaming in a few spots. But his home was still standing.

There were long lines at gas stations as many received the call to evacuate.

“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 the fire through the car as she fled.

“Trees were on fire like torches,” 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.

Sonoma County resident John Dean was driving home early 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 very, very — they’re tremendous and it’s what makes this fire unpredictable. It’s something that we’re having to be very cautious about,” she said.

Ann Dubay, a spokeswoman for Sonoma County Emergency Operations Center, said the area where the largest fire started was relatively rural “but it went through many, many neighborhoods and we’re sure that structures have burned, we don’t know how many we don’t have a count yet.”

“Probably many homes and businesses, in the outskirts of Santa Rosa and the city itself,” she said. “It’s a huge, huge tragedy, a huge, huge loss for so many people.”

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.”

Business owner Andy Lahiji stood before a burned out storage warehouse where he said he had lost his inventory of furniture and other property. He said it took firetrucks ages to arrive Monday morning.

“They said we have so many other places to go, you have to wait. And then when they came, they had only a couple of guys,” he told the station. “I really, I feel very sad. I’m glad nobody got hurt. Hopefully insurance takes care of it.”

The National Weather Service said widespread wind gusts between 35 mph and 50 mph were observed in the north San Francisco Bay region and isolated spots hit 70 mph. The winds were expected to subside at midday.

Community centers, the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and other local centers were opened for evacuees.