At least 10 dead as blazes ravage northern California
NAPA (Los Angeles Times/TNS) Scott Lambert and his wife were sleeping in their home north of Napa on Sunday night when they awoke to the sound of a honking horn and shouts of “Get out!”
At the door, he was greeted by wind and an eerie night sky washed in orange.
Lambert, 76, and his wife, Laura, grabbed a few things and fled, first to a friend’s winery and then to a Napa community church that was doubling as a Red Cross shelter.
Heavy smoke choked the air and bits of white ash from the Atlas fire drifted earthward Monday morning as he fretted over the fate of the house his parents bought three decades ago.
“I think the outlook is bad,” said Lambert, who is retired from the oil industry and has a passion for English literature. “I had my library, thousands of carefully selected books. My grand piano. My music...”
The Atlas was one of 14 wildfires that cut a devastating and deadly path across Northern California on Sunday night. Driven by appropriately named Diablo winds, the firestorm killed at least 10 people and destroyed 1,500 structures across eight counties.
Seven deaths were reported in Sonoma County, two in Napa County and one in Mendocino County, according to authorities.
As of Monday afternoon, the blazes ranked as the state’s fifthmost destructive and among the 10 deadliest.
“We are a resilient county,” Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “We will come back from this. But right now we need to grieve.”
Officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said 17 large wildfires, including the Anaheim Hills blaze in Southern California, had blackened more than 94,000 acres (38,000 hectares) across the state. Three-quarters of the acreage was in the North.
Leaping from ridge top to ridge top in grass and oak woodlands, flames raced across the heart of the California wine country, claiming houses, at least one winery and a dairy.
In Santa Rosa, the Tubbs fire leveled an entire neighborhood, burned a Hilton hotel, turned big-box stores into smoking ruins and prompted the evacuation of two hospitals, Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital and Kaiser’s Santa Rosa Medical Center.
Video on social media showed flames dancing in the background as nurses hurriedly wheeled a patient in a hospital bed across a parking lot, IV drip bags in tow.
“Late last night, starting around 10 o’clock, you had 50- to 60-mph winds that surfaced – really across the whole northern half of the state,” CalFire director Ken Pimlott said Monday. “Every spark is going to ignite.”
Though the conditions that fed the blazes – high winds from the interior, dried-up vegetation and low humidity – are more typical of Southern California’s fall fire season, the North has seen its share of horrific autumn wildfires.
The state’s second-deadliest blaze is the October 1991 Tunnel fire in the Oakland and Berkeley hills, which erupted on a quiet Sunday and killed 25 people.
The Tunnel also ranks as the most destructive wildfire in California history, consuming 2,900 structures.
Two years ago, the Valley fire roared across Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties, killing four people and destroying 1,995 buildings.
The scene Sunday night when Brenda Burke, 55, fled her cottage north of Napa “was awful,” she said.
The fire “would move with the wind. You knew when a house went up because there would be a whole slew of smoke and you could hear the propane tanks exploding.”
Eager to find out if her home survived, she went back Monday morning, past fire-gutted houses and smoking lawns. When she got to her driveway, she saw flames “from what appeared to be the front of my house.”
Later in the day, she threw herself into volunteer work at an animal rescue organization.
Sitting outside a Napa emergency shelter with a dog and a cat pulled from a parked van, she managed a tight smile.
“I have what I’m wearing right now and my dog and my phone,” she said. “And I have friends and family. I will be fine.”
About 45,000 people were without power and/or cell service in Napa and Sonoma counties.
Residents flocked to Napa’s largely shuttered downtown to take advantage of the Wi-Fi at a Starbucks, one of the few businesses open. The smoke was so thick that most drivers turned on their headlights.
In the hard-hit Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Diana Wilder stood outside the pile of rubble that was once her home, clutching a concrete Buddha lawn ornament.
“I wanted to take something from the house with me,” said Wilder, 53, a homemaker.
A safe and some flower pots were evident in the wreckage, but not much else.
“I was praying all night, ‘Please, house, still be there,’” said Wilder, who spent Sunday night with her husband in a supermarket parking lot.
Wilder returned to find every house on her cul-de-sac burned to the ground, the charred remains of washing machines, barbecues and chimneys standing amid the graveyard of homes.
She and her husband bought their house in 2000. Their monthly payment was $1,200. These days, she doubts she can find an apartment for that amount and plans to live with her brother until she figures out what to do next.
A BURNING STRUCTURE is seen at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country on Monday nightduring the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California.