Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires death toll rises

The Phnom Penh Post - - WORLD - Julie Char­p­en­trat and Glenn Chap­man

FIREFIGHTERS bat­tled wild­fires in Cal­i­for­nia’s wine re­gion on Tues­day as the death toll rose to 15 and thou­sands were left home­less in neigh­bour­hoods re­duced to ashes.

“The homes are gone, they are like dust,” said Jack Dixon, a per­sonal trainer who lives in Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 in Sonoma County. “It is just like we were nuked.”

Dixon said that his own neigh­bour­hood was spared when the fire “mirac­u­lously” changed di­rec­tion but many oth­ers were not so for­tu­nate.

“I am sur­rounded by dev­as­ta­tion and feel lucky it didn’t hap­pen to me,” Dixon said.

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump de­clared a ma­jor dis­as­ter in Cal­i­for­nia, free­ing up fed­eral fund­ing and re­sources to help fight the 17 large wild­fires in the west­ern state.

Gover­nor Jerry Brown de­clared a state of emer­gency in eight coun­ties – in­clud­ing wine-pro­duc­ing Napa and Sonoma – and said thou­sands of firefighters had been de­ployed to fight the blazes.

The state fire preven­tion agency Cal­fire fore­cast strong winds for Wednesday, which could fan the fires.

Nine deaths were re­ported in Sonoma County, three in Men­do­cino County, two in Napa County and one in Yuba County and the gover­nor said “emer­gency re­spon­ders an­tic­i­pate the num­ber of fa­tal­i­ties could grow.”

Among the dead were a cou­ple aged 99 and 100-years-old from Napa who had been mar­ried for 75 years, KTVU-TV said. They were un­able to evac­u­ate their home in time.

The Sonoma County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment said on its Face­book page it had re­ceived re­ports of 200 miss­ing peo­ple.

Forty-five had been lo­cated and the depart­ment said it was con­fi­dent that many of the rest would be found safe.

About 25,000 peo­ple have been evac­u­ated in Sonoma County alone, the depart­ment said, and 5,000 have sought refuge in shel­ters.

The fires have torched over 46,500 hectares and de­stroyed over 2,000 homes and busi­nesses, ac­cord­ing to the au­thor­i­ties.

Winds have weak­ened

The Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion (Cal Fire) said 17 large fires were con­tin­u­ing to burn on Tues­day.

“The winds that fanned these fires Sun­day night and Mon­day morn­ing have de­creased sig­nif­i­cantly, but lo­cal winds and dry con­di­tions con­tinue to pose a chal­lenge,” Cal Fire said.

“With the de­crease in the winds com­bined with cooler weather, firefighters made good progress overnight,” it added.

Gover­nor Brown said the “dev­as­ta­tion and dis­rup­tion caused by these fires is ex­tra­or­di­nary. “Thou­sands have been made home­less.”

Much of the worst dam­age was in Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County, and could be seen from US Route 101, the north-south high­way which runs from Cal­i­for­nia through Ore­gon to Washington state.

The Sonoma County Hil­ton perched on a hill over­look­ing 101 was a smoul­der­ing ruin of charred wood and twisted metal, as was the nearby Foun­tain­grove Inn.

An enor­mous K-Mart store was en­tirely de­stroyed with only a cou­ple of black­ened walls still stand­ing.

Among the winer­ies which re­port­edly suf­fered dam­age were Wil­liam Hill Es­tate Win­ery in Napa, Sig­norello Vine­yards, Stags’ Leap and Chim­ney Rock.

Mau­reen Fairchild, a nurse, was work­ing at a hos­pi­tal in Marin County where some of the evac­uees were brought.

“I was work­ing in a mem­o­ry­im­paired unit,” Fairchild said. “We had all these peo­ple who were al­ready con­fused and now they were in an un­fa­mil­iar place with all this frenzy going on around them.”

Kris Ham­mar, who lives in Santa Rosa on the edge of a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion zone, had not yet evac­u­ated but was mon­i­tor­ing maps, wind di­rec­tion, and fire up­dates to see if she and her fam­ily should bolt.

“The fire is close, very close,” Ham­mer said. “Ev­ery­thing is in the car, and we are check­ing con­stantly to see if any­thing has changed.”

Gover­nor Brown in April de­clared the of­fi­cial end of the state’s drought that lasted more than five years.

But Cal­i­for­nia is still deal­ing with the Santa Ana winds, a me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non which brings dry winds down from the high mountains east of the coastal ar­eas – a recipe for per­fect wild­fire con­di­tions.

Forest fires are com­mon in the west­ern US dur­ing dry, hot sum­mer months.


The Cof­fey Park sub­di­vi­sion in Santa Rosa, Cal­i­for­nia, is seen be­fore (left) and after wild­fires swept through the area on Mon­day.

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