Unprecedented fires raging in California’s wine country leave ‘enormous devastation’ with foreboding weather conditions expected
October 11, 2017 — The death toll has climbed to 21 as wildfires continue to blaze almost completely out of control in California’s wine country, and firefighters expect weather conditions to take a turn for the worse.
“Now the winds are going back up and the humidity is going back down,” said Heather Williams, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire, the state agency responsible for fire protection. “We’re still not out of the woods, it’s a very serious situation.”
In the tiny wine country town of Glen Ellen, where the ground was still smoking, Loren Davis of the Mountain volunteer fire department had a blunter assessment: “It’s a shitstorm.”
In the town of Santa Rosa, 50 miles north of San Francisco, entire neighborhoods have already been razed to the ground, leaving little more than charred heaps of belongings, skeletal trees and melted cars. More than 20,000 people have headed to evacuation centers across the region, with more leaving their homes as new areas are threatened.
Thirteen of the fatalities occurred in Napa and Sonoma counties, about an hour north of San Francisco, and the others in the state’s northern and eastern reaches – six in Mendocino county and two in Yuba county.
The Sonoma County sheriff, Robert Giordano, said the number of missing-persons reports had surpassed 600, up from about 200 a day earlier. But officials believe many of those people will be found, saying that the chaotic evacuations and poor communications over the past few days have made locating friends and family difficult.
He also expects the death toll to climb.
“The devastation is enormous,” he said. “We can’t even get into most areas.”
While it is not unusual for dozens of small fires to start each day in California, gusty conditions on Sunday night meant that 17 major fires quickly developed. Five additional major fires have ignited since then. Control remains minimal: the main fire burning in wine country is only at 3% containment, and the second-largest in the area is at 0%.
At least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed since the wildfires started Sunday, making them the most destructive blazes in state history.
California’s governor, Jerry Brown, said on Wednesday that the federal government had pledged assistance, but pointed out that resources also are going to hurricane recovery efforts in Texas and Florida.
He was not circumspect about the context of the conflagrations. He said a warming climate had contributed to catastrophic wildfires and warned that they would continue to happen. Brown also noted that more people were living in communities close to forests and brush that easily ignite because of dry weather.
Officials in Napa County say almost half the population of Calistoga, famous for its hot springs and wineries, was ordered to evacuate before sunrise. Officials went through the town of 5,000 people block by block, knocking on doors to warn people to leave, Napa County supervisor Diane Dillon said.
Evacuations have also taken place in parts of the state that were previously unaffected – some residents in Solano County, abutting the San Francisco Bay estuary, have also been told to pack up.
In southern California, cooler weather and moist ocean air helped firefighters gain ground against a wildfire that has scorched more than a dozen square miles.
Orange County fire authority captain Steve Concialdi said the blaze was nearly halfway surrounded and full containment was expected by Saturday, but another round of gusty winds and low humidity levels could arrive late on Thursday.
About 8,000 firefighters are working across the state, along with 73 helicopters and 30 airtankers, according to a Cal Fire spokesperson. New resources are set to pour in following a request from California, including 175 engines from neighboring states and dozens more from federal agencies.
“We know it’s going to be very fluid in the next couple days, and so we want these resources to get here as soon as possible,” said Williams of Cal Fire.
Of the present fires, the Tubbs fire, in Sonoma County, has claimed the largest number of lives – 11. But it is far from the deadliest in state history. The 1933 Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles killed 29, while 1991’s Tunnel fire in Oakland caused 25 deaths.
Williams said she understood why some might be scared but encouraged pragmatism and vigilance instead.
“I think frightened is a normal emotion,” she said. “I think the best thing we can tell people is we need them to be prepare to be evacuated.”