Thou­sands more North­ern Cal­i­for­ni­ans or­dered to flee amid firestorm that has scorched 170,000 acres and killed at least 23

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Louis Sa­h­a­gun, Paige St. John, Javier Pan­zar and Joel Ru­bin

Ash is nearly all that re­mains of oblit­er­ated homes in Santa Rosa. Thou­sands more North­ern Cal­i­for­nia res­i­dents have been or­dered to evac­u­ate as the death toll and acreage burned in­crease.

CAL­IS­TOGA, Calif. — Den­nis DeVil­biss had made up his mind.

“I’m not leav­ing,” the for­mer cop and fire­fighter said Wednesday af­ter­noon as he stood on his front porch in Cal­is­toga, a wine coun­try town un­der threat from an ap­proach­ing wild­fire. Au­thor­i­ties had or­dered its 5,000 res­i­dents to evac­u­ate.

He glanced at smoke drift­ing over nearby trees, and smiled. “I’m not stupid,” said DeVil­biss, 60. “If it’s time to run, I’ll run like hell.”

As the death toll from 16 wild­fires rag­ing in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia climbed Wednesday, thou­sands more res­i­dents in Cal­is­toga and else­where were or­dered to flee their homes and firefighters raced against the set­ting sun to douse smol­der­ing hot spots be­fore dev­il­ish winds

re­turned to breathe new life into the blazes.

Dur­ing searches of de­stroyed homes, au­thor­i­ties found more bod­ies, bringing the num­ber of dead to at least 23, fire of­fi­cials said. The loss of life, along with the es­ti­mated 170,000 acres and 3,500 struc­tures al­ready burned, ranked the fires as some of the most de­struc­tive in state his­tory.

“We’ve had big fires in the past,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a briefing with state and fed­eral fire of­fi­cials. “This is one of the big­gest.”

With an es­ti­mated 50,000 peo­ple hav­ing left their homes for shel­ters and ho­tels, po­lice con­tin­ued to work to lo­cate sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple re­ported miss­ing by pan­icked rel­a­tives and friends. Au­thor­i­ties said that with com­mu­ni­ca­tions hob­bled by downed cell­phone tow­ers and peo­ple mak­ing hasty es­capes, they were hope­ful that most, if not all, would turn up safe.

As Brown made for­mal emer­gency dec­la­ra­tions for eight coun­ties, of­fi­cials de­scribed a mas­sive ef­fort to get a han­dle on the fires, most of which con­tin­ued to burn unchecked.

Statewide, 30 air tankers, nearly 75 he­li­copters and 550 fire en­gines with sev­eral thou­sand firefighters had al­ready been pressed into ac­tion. State of­fi­cials re­quested more than 300 ad­di­tional en­gines from other states and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Through the night and into Wednesday morn­ing, the devastating At­las Peak and Tubbs fires con­tin­ued to churn, feed­ing on tin­der-dry veg­e­ta­tion made thicker by the win­ter’s heavy rain­fall.

The At­las Peak fire, which has men­aced the town of Napa since Sun­day, nearly dou­bled in size to 46,000 acres and be­gan to push south, cre­at­ing a new threat to Fair­field, a Bay Area city along In­ter­state 80.

Po­lice or­dered evac­u­a­tions in the Green Val­ley area just out­side Fair­field and ad­vised res­i­dents in other neigh­bor­hoods to leave. Three school dis­tricts in the re­gion — with a to­tal en­roll­ment of about 81,000 stu­dents — shut down for the rest of the week as thick smoke en­veloped the area.

“This morn­ing it felt like a war zone; yes­ter­day evening you could stare straight at the sun — it was just this pur­ple cir­cle in the sky,” said Jen­nifer Leonard, a spokes­woman for the Va­cav­ille Uni­fied School Dis­trict. “Ash was fall­ing from the sky.”

In Napa, nearly sur­rounded by the At­las Peak fire to the north and east and a smaller blaze to the west, the air was choked with smoke. Much of the town was with­out power or cell ser­vice.

And the Tubbs fire, which be­gan Sun­day night in the hills above Santa Rosa and claimed at least 13 lives when it stormed into the city and sur­round­ing ar­eas, re­versed course and pushed north.

With the fire’s about-face, Cal­is­toga was at risk. At 3:30 a.m., county and town of­fi­cials there joined po­lice of­fi­cers in going house to house in one neigh­bor­hood, telling peo­ple to leave. By af­ter­noon, they de­cided to clear the en­tire town.

A dozen po­lice of­fi­cers from Oak­land, called in to as­sist lo­cal po­lice al­ready stretched too thin, strode through the nar­row lanes of a trailer park.

Many res­i­dents had al­ready fled, but Larry Strak­bein, 75, wanted to stay put.

“I’ve been through a lot in my life, in­clud­ing three wives,” he said. “I can han­dle my­self.”

A mo­ment later, three of­fi­cers showed up at his door. “Sir, you have to leave,” one said.

Strak­bein re­lented and an of­fi­cer spray-painted a large red check mark on the street in front of his trailer.

It was the an­tic­i­pated re­turn of the re­gion’s no­to­ri­ous “Di­ablo” winds Wednesday night that had fire of­fi­cials most wor­ried.

Com­man­ders dis­patched crews of ex­hausted and sore firefighters to fan out across al­ready-scorched moun­tain­sides near Cal­is­toga and Santa Rosa.

Their job was to find and squelch hot spots laden with em­bers. With axes and shov­els, they chopped at shrubs and turned the soil.

The winds can re­vive em­bers and send them hurtling through the air. If they land in ar­eas not yet burned, there would be lit­tle that firefighters could do to stop them from set­ting off new con­fla­gra­tions.

“The clock is tick­ing, so we’re giv­ing it ev­ery­thing we’ve got,” Di­vi­sion Chief Ben Ni­cholls of the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion said as he sliced through dry grass and stub­born roots with a blade. “This isn’t that sexy. It’s called mop-up, and right now it is crit­i­cal.”

A few miles away, on a ridge­line just north of Cal­is­toga, a hand crew of 13 firefighters worked on a smol­der­ing slope.

“Ev­ery glow­ing em­ber is a tick­ing time bomb,” said Stephen War­ren, a Cal Fire ap­pa­ra­tus en­gi­neer.

The causes of the fires re­mained un­known, though Daniel Ber­lant, a Cal Fire as­sis­tant deputy direc­tor, said downed power lines, camp­fires and ma­chin­ery are com­mon cul­prits.

A spokesman for San Fran­cisco-based Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric Co. said it is not yet known whether the com­pany’s power lines or trans­form­ers sparked any of the fires. With at least 40,000 cus­tomers with­out power in the Santa Rosa area, he said, the util­ity’s pri­or­ity is restor­ing elec­tric­ity.

‘This morn­ing it felt like a war zone; yes­ter­day evening you could stare straight at the sun — it was just this pur­ple cir­cle in the sky. Ash was fall­ing from the sky.’ — JEN­NIFER LEONARD, Va­cav­ille Uni­fied School Dis­trict spokes­woman

Mar­cus Yam Los Angeles Times

Pho­to­graphs by Brian van der Brug Los Angeles Times

BILL PAR­RAS, 96, is as­sisted by Con­tra Costa County paramedics while evac­u­at­ing his home Wednesday in Cal­is­toga, Calif. The town’s 5,000 res­i­dents were or­dered to evac­u­ate as the deadly Tubbs fire re­versed course.

A FIRE­FIGHTER douses a hot spot near Cal­is­toga as the re­gion’s no­to­ri­ous “Di­ablo” winds threat­ened to carry and reignite em­bers, spark­ing spot fires.

Mar­cus Yam Los Angeles Times

THE TUBBS FIRE moves up Shiloh Ridge to­ward a home near Santa Rosa on Wednesday. The fire was one of 16 burn­ing in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where at least 23 peo­ple were killed as the blazes scorched an es­ti­mated 170,000 acres and de­stroyed 3,500 struc­tures. About 50,000 peo­ple have left their homes for shel­ters and ho­tels.

Brian van der Brug Los Angeles Times

DEN­NIS DeVIL­BISS, right, and DJ Mars Smith de­cided not to evac­u­ate from Cal­is­toga. “I’m not stupid,” DeVil­biss said. “If it’s time to run, I’ll run like hell.”

Brian van der Brug Los Angeles Times

A FIRE CREW walks into a Kim­ball Canyon neigh­bor­hood near Cal­is­toga. Firefighters feared that re­turn­ing winds could reignite glow­ing em­bers and hot spots.

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