Hun­dreds miss­ing as winds fan Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires

Business World - - THE WORLD -

SONOMA, CAL­I­FOR­NIA — Fire­fight­ers fac­ing a resurgence of high winds on Wed­nes­day strug­gled to halt wild­fires that have killed at least 23 peo­ple, de­stroyed 3,500 struc­tures and left hun­dreds miss­ing in chaotic evac­u­a­tions across north­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s wine coun­try.

Nearly two dozen blazes span­ning eight coun­ties have charred around 170,000 acres ( 68,797 hectares).

Flames erupted on Sun­day night when gale force winds top­pled power lines across the re­gion, pos­si­bly ig­nit­ing one of the dead­li­est wild­fire out­breaks in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

The en­tire town of Cal­is­toga, a Napa Val­ley com­mu­nity of some 5,000 res­i­dents spared from ad­vanc­ing flames the first night of the fire, was or­dered to evac­u­ate on Wed­nes­day evening, as the county sher­iff ’s of­fice warned that con­di­tions had wors­ened as the so-called Tubbs Fire was burn­ing nearby.

“The Tubbs Fire has made slow progress to this point but sig­nif­i­cant winds are still fore­casted,” the city said in an on­line alert.

Flames were spread rapidly by hot, dry “Di­ablo” winds — sim­i­lar to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s Santa Ana winds — that blew into north­ern Cal­i­for­nia to­ward the Pa­cific on Sun­day night.

The of­fi­cial cause of the fire has not been de­ter­mined. But elec­tric wires knocked down by those same winds may have sparked the con­fla­gra­tion, ac­cord­ing to Daniel Ber­lant, spokesman for the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion (Cal Fire).

“That is def­i­nitely a pos­si­bil­ity,” he told Reuters. “Power lines are a com­mon cause of fires dur­ing wind events.”

Mr. Ber­lant said some of the vic­tims in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia were asleep when the fast-mov­ing fires broke out, ig­nit­ing their homes be­fore they could es­cape.

At least 20,000 peo­ple re­mained un­der evac­u­a­tion as the fires raged largely unchecked for a third day, belch­ing palls of smoke that en­gulfed the re­gion and drifted south over the San Fran­cisco Bay area, where some res­i­dents donned face masks.

More than 550 peo­ple were still re­ported un­ac­counted for in Sonoma County on Wed­nes­day morn­ing, said Jen­nifer Laroque, a county emer­gency op­er­a­tions cen­ter spokes­woman.

It was un­clear how many of the miss­ing might be fire vic­tims rather than evac­uees who merely failed to check in with au­thor­i­ties. Of­fi­cials urged dis­placed res­i­dents to let their fam­ily mem­bers know they were safe.

OBLIT­ER­ATED NEIGH­BOR­HOODS

The Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa, the largest city in the wine coun­try re­gion, was par­tic­u­larly hard hit by the Tubbs fire. Blocks of some neigh­bor­hoods were nearly oblit­er­ated with noth­ing left but charred de­bris, bro­ken walls, chim­neys and the steel frames of burned-out cars.

“It’s like driv­ing through a war zone,” J.J. Mur­phy, 22, one of thou­sands of evac­uees, said of the area around his home in the Sonoma Val­ley com­mu­nity of Glen Ellen.

Mr. Mur­phy, five rel­a­tives, a bird, a dog and two cats piled into their camper van to flee on Mon­day, he said.

“It’s crazy how in just a few hours a place I’ve rec­og­nized all my life I can’t rec­og­nize,” he said at a road­side food stop in the town of Sonoma.

In the town of Napa on the first night of a blaze dubbed the At­las fire, nearly 50 peo­ple who were in dan­ger of be­ing over­run by flames were res­cued by the crews of two Cal­i­for­nia High­way Pa­trol he­li­copters.

The weather gave fire­fight­ers a bit of a respite on Tues­day as cooler tem­per­a­tures, lower winds and coastal fog en­abled them to make head­way against the flames. Fire crews la­bored on Wed­nes­day to strengthen con­tain­ment lines as winds picked up again.

“We’re not out of the woods and we’re not go­ing to be out of the woods for a great num­ber of days to come,” Ken Pim­lott, direc­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, told a news con­fer­ence.

In ad­di­tion to high winds, fires were stoked by an abun­dance of thick brush and other veg­e­ta­tion left tin­der dry by a sum­mer of hot, dry weather.

Matt Nau­man, a spokesman for the re­gion’s main util­ity, Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric, ac­knowl­edged that fallen power lines were wide­spread dur­ing the “his­toric wind event,” which he said packed some hur­ri­cane-strength gusts in ex­cess of 75 miles per hour (120 km/ h).

FIRES EN­TER RECORD BOOKS

At least 13 peo­ple were killed by the Tubbs fire in Sonoma County alone, off icials said, two more than were re­ported ear­lier in the day.

It is the dead­li­est sin­gle Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire since 2003, when the so-called Cedar fire killed 15 peo­ple in San Diego, ac­cord­ing to state data.

The lat­est over­all death toll of 23, in­clud­ing six fa­tal­i­ties in Men­do­cino County and two more each in Napa and Yuba coun­ties, marks the great­est loss of life from a Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire since 25 peo­ple per­ished in a firestorm that swept the Oak­land Hills in Oc­to­ber 1991.

The dead­li­est wild­fire on record in Cal­i­for­nia dates back to Oc­to­ber 1933, when 29 lives were lost in the Grif­fith Park fire in Los An­ge­les.

Wild­fires have dam­aged or de­mol­ished at least 13 Napa Val­ley winer­ies, a trade group for vint­ners there said on Tues­day. But ex­perts say smoke rather than flames may pose a greater risk to the del­i­cate grapes still wait­ing to be picked.

Cal­i­for­nia Gov­er­nor Jerry Brown de­clared a state of emer­gency in sev­eral north­ern coun­ties, as well as in Or­ange County in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where a fire in Ana­heim de­stroyed 15 struc­tures and dam­aged 12. —

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