Still burn­ing

Death toll climbs from wild­fires in Cal­i­for­nia

Yuma Sun - - FRONT PAGE -

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The flames that raced across Cal­i­for­nia wine coun­try left lit­tle more than smol­der­ing ashes and eye-sting­ing smoke in their wake. House after house is gone, with only brick chim­neys and charred laun­dry ma­chines to mark sites that were once fam­ily homes.

The wild­fires burned so hot that win­dows and tire rims melted off cars, leav­ing many ve­hi­cles rest­ing on their steel axles. In one drive­way, the glass back­board of a bas­ket­ball hoop melted, dripped and so­lid­i­fied like a man­gled ici­cle.

Newly home­less res­i­dents of Northern Cal­i­for­nia took stock of their shat­tered lives Tues­day while the blazes that have killed at least 17 peo­ple and de­stroyed more than 2,000 homes and busi­nesses kept burn­ing. Hun­dreds more fire­fight­ers joined the bat­tle against the un­con­tained flames.

“This is just pure dev­as­ta­tion, and it’s go­ing to take us a while to get out and comb through all of this,” said Ken Pim­lott, chief of the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion. He said the state had “sev­eral days of fire weather con­di­tions to come.”

The wild­fires al­ready rank among the five dead­li­est in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory, and of­fi­cials ex­pected the death toll to in­crease as the scope of de­struc­tion be­comes clear. At least 185 peo­ple were in­jured dur­ing the blazes that started Sun­day night. Nearly 200 peo­ple were re­ported miss­ing in Sonoma County alone.

Sev­en­teen wild­fires raged Tues­day across parts of seven coun­ties. Fire crews and other re­sources were be­ing rushed in from other parts of the state and Ne­vada.

More than 240 mem­bers of the Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard helped ferry fuel to first re­spon­ders be­cause so many gas sta­tions were with­out power. Guard mem­bers were also help­ing with med­i­cal evac­u­a­tions and se­cu­rity at evac­u­a­tion cen­ters, said Maj. Gen. David Bald­win.

In ad­di­tion to knock­ing out elec­tric­ity, the blazes dam­aged or de­stroyed 77 cel­lu­lar sites, dis­rupt­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion ser­vices that of­fi­cials were rush­ing to re­store, said Emer­gency Op­er­a­tions Di­rec­tor Mark Ghi­lar­ducci.

The fires that started Sun­day night moved so quickly that thou­sands of peo­ple were forced to flee with only a few min­utes of warn­ing. Some did not get out in time.

“It’s lit­er­ally like it ex­ploded. These peo­ple ran out of their homes lit­er­ally with min­utes no­tice, barely with the clothes on their back,” Pim­lott said, adding that author­i­ties didn’t have time to give more no­tice. “They burned so quickly, there was not time to no­tify ev­ery­body.”

Among the vic­tims were 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his wife, Sara, who was 98. The cou­ple was mar­ried for 75 years and lived in a res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood in Napa.

Their son, Mike Rippey, said he and his si­b­lings couldn’t imag­ine how ei­ther par­ent would have nav­i­gated life if just one had sur­vived the flames.

“We knew there’s no way they would ever be happy, who­ever was the last one. So they went to­gether, and that’s the way it worked,” he said sto­ically.

A thick, smoky haze cloaked much of Napa and Sonoma coun­ties, where neigh­bor­hoods hit by the fires were com­pletely lev­eled. Author­i­ties warned res­i­dents not to re­turn to their houses for safety rea­sons, cit­ing the risk of ex­posed elec­tri­cal and gas lines and un­sta­ble struc­tures in­clud­ing trees.

About 3,200 peo­ple were stay­ing in 28 shel­ters across Napa and Sonoma coun­ties.

“I don’t know how long I’m go­ing to be here, or what’s hap­pen­ing at home,” said Santa Rosa evac­uee Kathy Ruiz, who had found her way to a cen­ter at Sonoma County Fair­grounds. “That’s what I’m start­ing to think about now, am I go­ing to have a home to go back to?”

In the Santa Rosa sub­urb known as Cof­fey Park, Robyn Pel­le­grini let out a cry of grief as she ap­proached the smol­der­ing ru­ins of the du­plex she had shared with her hus­band and their 6-year-old son. Daniel Pel­le­grini held his wife be­fore they went search­ing for some­thing they could sal­vage for their child.

With bare hands, they sifted through the re­mains of the ex­te­rior wall, which had col­lapsed into dust inside the house and cov­ered all the other de­bris in their boy’s room. They found a stuffed an­i­mal — charred but still rec­og­niz­able as a tur­tle. Robyn Pel­le­grini let out joy­ful gasps when they found pieces of his rock col­lec­tion.

A young boy across the street, whose home was spared, brought over one of his own stuffed an­i­mals to share.

“You lose all your photos,” said Tony Pel­le­grini, Daniel’s fa­ther. “You feel like you lost a part of your life.”

Of­fi­cials hoped cooler weather and lighter winds would help crews get a han­dle on the fires.

“The weather has been work­ing in our fa­vor, but it doesn’t mean it will stay that way,” said Brad Alexan­der, a spokesman of the gover­nor’s Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices.

In Wash­ing­ton, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said he spoke with Gov. Jerry Brown to “let him know that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment will stand with the peo­ple of Cal­i­for­nia. And we will be there for you in this time of ter­ri­ble tragedy and need.”

The gov­ern­ment de­clared a disas­ter, which should give the state help putting out the flames.

More than 400 miles away from the wine-mak­ing re­gion, flames im­per­iled parts of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, too.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

THE SUN SHINES ABOVE BE­HIND A BURN­ING BUILD­ING AT THE HIL­TON SONOMA WINE COUN­TRY ho­tel in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Monday. Wild­fires whipped by pow­er­ful winds swept through Northern Cal­i­for­nia send­ing res­i­dents on a head­long flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned.

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