Fears grow of wild­fires merg­ing in Cal­i­for­nia

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY CLEVE R. WOOTSON JR., KRIS­TINE PHILLIPS AND JOEL ACHENBACH

santa rosa, calif. — The wind known as the Di­ablo is pick­ing up again, the air is dry, there is no rain in sight and the killer wild­fires that have scorched the wine coun­try of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia re­main al­most com­pletely un­con­tained. Of­fi­cials warned Wednesday that some of the big fires could merge.

Amid these grim bul­letins, the huge util­ity com­pany PG&E ac­knowl­edged that the ex­treme winds late Sun­day and early Mon­day had knocked trees into power lines in con­di­tions con­ducive to wild­fires.

“The his­toric wind event that swept across PG&E’s ser­vice area late Sun­day and early Mon­day packed hur­ri­cane-strength winds in ex­cess of 75 mph in some cases,” said Ari Van­re­nen, a PG&E spokes­woman, in a state­ment re­leased after the San Jose Mer­cury

News first re­ported on a pos­si­ble link be­tween the wild­fires and the power grid.

“These de­struc­tive winds, along with mil­lions of trees weak­ened by years of drought and re­cent re­newed veg­e­ta­tion growth from win­ter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and de­bris im­pact­ing our elec­tric lines across the North Bay,” she said.

Van­re­nen said the com­pany was up to date in the main­te­nance of its in­fra­struc­ture and the sur­round­ing veg­e­ta­tion but that ex­cess rain last win­ter, fol­lowed by a drought, has cre­ated a lot of dry brush.

Of­fi­cials with the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion (Cal Fire) said they have yet to de­ter­mine the cause of the fires, which have killed at least 23 peo­ple in Napa, Sonoma, Yuba and Men­do­cino coun­ties.

The con­fla­gra­tions have led tens of thou­sands of peo­ple to flee their homes. About 4,400 are in shel­ters and will not be able to go home for many days, of­fi­cials said. The Sonoma County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice said that of the 600 peo­ple re­ported miss­ing, 315 have been lo­cated safe. An­other 285 are still re­ported miss­ing, but many may have lost cell­phones or In­ter­net ac­cess and may not have been able to reach friends or fam­ily.

Statewide, 8,000 firefighters are work­ing to con­tain 22 wild­fires that cover 170,000 acres — a col­lec­tive area larger than the city of Chicago. The worst are in Napa, Sonoma and Men­do­cino coun­ties, where 4,500 homes and busi­nesses had been burned at last count.

The fire has put a strain on fed­eral re­sources, too. Com­ing on the heels of cat­a­strophic hur­ri­canes, the Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires in to­tal rep­re­sent just one of 22 dis­as­ters that the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency is man­ag­ing across the na­tion. Eighty-five per­cent of FEMA’s 9,900 full-time em­ploy­ees are work­ing “in the field,” away from their as­signed of­fices, agency spokesman Mike Cap­pan­nari said.

In some ar­eas in wine coun­try, the smoke and haze is so thick that the sun is a faint or­ange sphere in the sky. Most stores are sold out of air fil­tra­tion masks. Peo­ple pump­ing gas, shop­ping for gro­ceries or walk­ing dogs look like car­pen­ters or sur­geons, de­pend­ing on which type of mask they were able to pick up.

Fam­i­lies crowd ar­eas off the in­ter­state high­way, their cars packed with be­long­ings. High­way 101 cuts through rolling hills that dom­i­nate the Cal­i­for­nia coast, and en­tire hills are scarred black. In Santa Rosa, it is pos­si­ble to trace the di­rec­tion of the wind by which build­ings were re­duced to ashes and which re­mained un­touched.

Cal Fire Chief Ken Pim­lott said a ma­jor fire in Napa County, known as the At­las fire, was 3 per­cent con­tained. The same mod­est progress had been made against the Tubbs fire, which in­vaded the city of Santa Rosa amid winds after mid­night Mon­day morn­ing and im­mo­lated en­tire neigh­bor­hoods.

In Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Ameir Kazemi stared at the smol­der­ing re­mains of his busi­ness, the Mo­hawk Sign Com­pany. It has been a Santa Rosa in­sti­tu­tion for 50 years, and Kazemi, 33, has owned it for a decade. Now, it’s a pile of ashes and charred wood.

On Mon­day at 3:45 a.m., Kazemi’s friends be­gan call­ing him at home, warn­ing him that a wild­fire had jumped the high­way. He wanted to dash to the store, but he couldn’t leave his preg­nant wife. Two hours later, a lo­cal TV sta­tion broad­cast video of his build­ing on fire. The sta­tion re­played the clip con­stantly.

“It was pretty sick­en­ing,” he said. “I just wanted to come see if there was any chance that any­thing sur­vived — the art­work, 10 years’ worth of stuff on my hard drive. It’s all gone.”

Jen­nifer Pierre re­turned to her Santa Rosa neigh­bor­hood to see what was left of her house: al­most noth­ing. Ev­ery­thing was ashes, in­clud­ing her chil­dren’s baby blan­kets that she used to spray with her per­fume, her wed­ding dress and her wed­ding ring. Even the valu­ables in their fire­proof safe had burned or melted.

She and her hus­band had es­caped with the clothes on their backs, and the cou­ple now smelled like the smoky re­mains of their home.

“I could not wash that smell off me,” she said. “You just want to scrub it out of you and get the smell out of you. Ev­ery time you breathe, this whole or­deal im­me­di­ately comes back to you.”

Christina Han­son, 27, who has spina bi­fida, a neu­ral tube de­fect, and uses a wheel­chair, was one of the peo­ple re­ported miss­ing. Late Tues­day, her fam­ily posted the news that she did not sur­vive the fire that struck her home on the north side of Santa Rosa.

Frank Vin­cu­lado, Han­son’s cousin by mar­riage, had used so­cial me­dia to alert the com­mu­nity that she hadn’t been ac­counted for in the wake of the fires. “Help me and my wife find her cousin!! We have lost con­tact with her in the Santa Rosa fires!” he wrote.

But late Tues­day, after a fire in­spec­tor re­port­edly vis­ited the home, Vin­cu­lado wrote on Twit­ter, “To all who have retweeted, searched, called, text we have got­ten news we have lost an an­gel.”

Sonoma County Sher­iff Robert Gior­dano said he ex­pects the death toll to rise when of­fi­cers be­gin going into the “hot zones.”

“We can’t even get into most of the ar­eas,” he said. “When we start do­ing searches, I ex­pect that num­ber to go up.”

Sher­iff ’s of­fice spokes­woman Misti Har­ris said some­times the only way to spread cru­cial in­for­ma­tion is with boots on the ground. “Deputies were run­ning to­ward the fire, bang­ing on doors, get­ting peo­ple out of their houses,” she said.

Gior­dano said the manda­tory evac­u­a­tion zones in the county re­main off-lim­its 24 hours a day, and he doubted that res­i­dents would be able to re­turn to their homes this week.

Re­porters asked Gior­dano about anec­do­tal ac­counts from res­i­dents say­ing they hadn’t got­ten alerts by phone about the on­com­ing fires. The sher­iff cited a tech­no­log­i­cal change in so­ci­ety that has un­der­mined one au­to­mated sys­tem us­ing land­lines.

“Peo­ple don’t have land­lines any­more,” he said. He urged cit­i­zens to sign up for an alert sys­tem that sends mes­sages to their cell­phones.

With some of the fires in the Sier­ras and South­ern Cal­i­for­nia near­ing con­tain­ment, Cal Fire is shift­ing re­sources — which in­clude 73 he­li­copters and 30 air tankers — to the most dan­ger­ous fires in and around wine coun­try. The U.S. Forest Ser­vice said it has dis­patched 740 per­son­nel.

“We are in a wickedly dan­ger­ous fire sit­u­a­tion and when one of us needs help, all of us come,” said Bob Baird, direc­tor of fire and avi­a­tion man­age­ment for the Forest Ser­vice’s Pa­cific South­west re­gion.

Many Forest Ser­vice per­son­nel are deal­ing with threats to their own homes. On Wednesday morn­ing, as Baird was co­or­di­nat­ing fire­fight­ing ef­forts, he re­ceived a text from his wife telling him that they were be­ing asked to evac­u­ate their home in Fair­field.

“The At­las fire is three miles from the [Fair­field] city lim­its. The fire is about five miles away. Nor­mally, that would be far away, but not with this fire,” he said.

“We’re lit­er­ally look­ing at ex­plo­sive veg­e­ta­tion. These fires are burn­ing ac­tively dur­ing the day and at night,” said Pim­lott, the Cal Fire chief. “This is a se­ri­ous, crit­i­cal, cat­a­strophic event.”

STU­ART PALLEY FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

RIGHT: Safes stand un­dam­aged Wednesday inside a gun store de­stroyed by the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa, Calif. ABOVE: Mo­hawk Signs & En­grav­ing lies in rub­ble. To watch a video, go to wapo.st/cal­i­for­ni­afire1012.

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