‘Cat­a­strophic’ fire kills at least 23

The Australian - - WORLD -

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.

PIC­TURES: AFP, AP

‘We are still im­pacted by five years of drought’ in Cof­fey Park, above; Mark Ha­ley and daugh­ter Fiona in Napa, be­low

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