‘Catastrophic’ fire kills at least 23
SANTA ROSA: More than 200 fire engines and firefighting crews from around the US were being rushed to California yesterday to help battle infernos that have left at least 23 people dead and thousands homeless.
“This is a serious, critical, catastrophic event,” California fire chief Ken Pimlott said. “We’re not going to be out of the woods for a great number of days to come.”
Mr Pimlott said that after a respite on Wednesday, winds kicked up again yesterday and the wind and dry conditions were hampering efforts to contain the blazes.
“We are still impacted by five years of drought,” the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
“These fires were driven by the critically dry fuel bed. We are literally looking at explosive vegetation.”
Mr Pimlott said the death toll from the fires, among the deadliest in California, could rise. Thirteen people have died in Sonoma County and six in Mendocino County. There have been two deaths in Napa County and two in Yuba County.
Entire neighbourhoods in Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 that is the county seat of Sonoma, have been reduced to ashes.
Thousands of people have been left homeless and 25,000 people have been evacuated in Sonoma County alone, officials said.
More than 3500 homes and businesses have been destroyed including several wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties, the heart of the state’s wine production.
Six hundred people initially were reported missing in Sonoma County, sheriff Robert Giordano said more than half since had been found. “There’s still 285 on our missing list that we’re looking for,” he said.
Mr Pimlott said firefighters were battling 22 wildfires that have burned more than 68,800ha.
He said reinforcements had been requested, with 170 fire engines ordered from the neighbouring states of Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington and another 154 engines from elsewhere around the country.
In addition, 60 firefighting crews from other states were on their way to California to help, he said. “Our primary goal is to get these resources into the fires.”
He said 73 helicopters, 30 air tankers and almost 8000 firefighters were helping to fight the blazes.
President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in California, releasing federal funding and resources.
Governor Jerry Brown also declared a state of emergency in eight counties.
Bob Nelson, 53, who was stranded in his black utility truck at a police roadblock near Santa Rosa, said he had fled his home on Monday and returned on Wednesday.
“There was no damage,” he said. “But then we got evacuated again. We don’t know about our house now. I’ve got no idea. It’s in the middle of two fires.”
Michael Desmond, 63, said he
‘We’re not going to be out of the woods for a great number of days to come’ KEN PIMLOTT CALIFORNIA FIRE CHIEF
did know, and the news was bad: his home was one of hundreds destroyed by the blaze in the Coffey Park neighbourhood of Santa Rosa.
“I feel violated — like a thief came in,” said Mr Desmond, who sobbed as he surveyed the rubble of the house where he grew up.
Much of the damage in Santa Rosa can be seen from US Route 101, the north-south highway that runs from California through Oregon to Washington state.
The Sonoma County Hilton perched on a hill overlooking Route 101 is a ruin of charred wood and twisted metal, as is the nearby Fountaingrove Inn.
An enormous Kmart store has been destroyed with just a couple of blackened walls left standing.
Among the wineries damaged were William Hill Estate Winery in Napa, Signorello Vineyards, Stags’ Leap and Chimney Rock.
Forest fires are common in the western US during dry, hot months but this year’s California fires are among the deadliest ever.
The Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles County in 1933 killed at least 29 people. In 1991, 25 people died in the Oakland Hills fire.
‘We are still impacted by five years of drought’ in Coffey Park, above; Mark Haley and daughter Fiona in Napa, below