Death toll ex­pected to rise in ‘cat­a­strophic’ California wild­fires

The Nation - - WORLD -

MORE THAN 200 fire en­gines and fire­fight­ing crews from around the coun­try were be­ing rushed to California to help bat­tle in­fer­nos which have left at least 23 peo­ple dead and thou­sands home­less.

“This is a se­ri­ous, crit­i­cal, cat­a­strophic event,” California fire chief Ken Pim­lott told re­porters. “We’re not go­ing to be out of the woods for a great num­ber of days to come.”

Pim­lott said that after a respite on Tues­day winds kicked up again on Wed­nes­day and the winds 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 (Cal Fire) said.

“These fires were driven by the crit­i­cally dry fuel bed,” he added. “We are lit­er­ally look­ing at ex­plo­sive veg­e­ta­tion.”

Pim­lott said the death toll from the fires, among the dead­li­est ever in California, could be ex­pected to go up fur­ther.

Thirteen of the deaths have oc­curred in Sonoma County, a wine­pro­duc­ing re­gion which has been par­tic­u­larly hard hit, while six peo­ple have died 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 which is the county seat of Sonoma County, have been re­duced to ashes.

Thou­sands of peo­ple have been left home­less and 25,000 peo­ple have evac­u­ated their homes in Sonoma County alone, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials.

More than 3,500 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 have been re­ported miss­ing in Sonoma County, but more than half of them have been lo­cated, Sher­iff Robert Gior­dano told re­porters.

“There’s still 285 on our miss­ing list that we’re look­ing for,” he said.

Evac­u­ated again

Pim­lott said fire­fight­ers were bat­tling a to­tal of 22 wild­fires that have burned over 170,000 acres (68,800 hectares) and that re­in­force­ments had been re­quested.

He said 170 fire en­gines had been or­dered from the neigh­bour­ing states of Ari­zona, Ne­vada, Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton and an­other 154 en­gines were com­ing from from else­where around the coun­try.

In ad­di­tion, 60 fire­fight­ing crews from other states were on their way to California to pro­vide as­sis­tance, he said.

“Our pri­mary goal is to get these re­sources into the fires,” Pim­lott said.

He said 73 he­li­copters, 30 air tankers and nearly 8,000 fire­fight­ers were cur­rently tak­ing part in the ef­fort to ex­tin­guish the blazes.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has de­clared a ma­jor disas­ter in California, free­ing up fed­eral fund­ing and re­sources to help fight the fires.

And Gov­er­nor Jerry Brown de­clared a state of emer­gency in eight coun­ties.

Bob Nel­son, 53, stopped in his black pickup truck at a po­lice road­block near Santa Rosa, said he fled his home on Sun­day and re­turned on Tues­day.

“There was no dam­age,” he said. “But then we got evac­u­ated again.

“We don’t know about our house now,” Nel­son told AFP. “I’ve got no idea. It’s in the mid­dle of two fires.”

Michael Des­mond, 63, does know, and the news is 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 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 which 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 K-Mart store has been en­tirely de­stroyed with only a cou­ple of black­ened walls still stand­ing.

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