Unprecedented wildfires raging in California’s wine country leave enormous devastation as fire agency says situation still ‘very serious’
October 12, 2017 — The death toll climbed to 29 on Thursday 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.”
Winds were expected to continue through Thursday morning, then pick up again on Thursday evening, prompting the National Weather Service to issue “red flag warnings” – denoting the extreme risk for new fires to form – for much of the region, extending into the city of Oakland.
In the tiny wine country town of Glen Ellen, where the ground was still smoking from the flames that tore through early on Monday morning, Loren Davis, of the Mountain volunteer fire department, had a blunter assessment: “It’s a shitstorm.”
Davis said that in 20 years of firefighting, he had never seen anything like the Tubbs fire, one of the now 23 major wildfires burning in California. He said he had been part of the first team on the scene and it was “freaking crazy”.
Residents of the Eastridge development in the Bay Area city of Fairfield were busy loading their cars on Wednesday afternoon as flurries of ash fell over the neighborhood like a dry, putrid dusting of snow. Firefighters and police officers were stationed every few blocks in the sprawling development of rolling hills, large houses and meticulously landscaped gardens, waiting for the order to declare a mandatory evacuation.
“I’m nervous,” said Annette Abrao, a dental hygienist. She and her husband, Eddie, a landscaper, had left work early to get home and prepare to leave. Their truck held photographs and documents, while a trailer was packed with camping gear, a golf cart, and a stuffed elk head – a memento from a 2010 hunting trip.
“We have a house full of stuff, and the things that were really important fit in a truck and trailer,” Eddie Arbao said. “What does that tell you?”
The fireline was about three miles north of Eastridge by late Wednesday afternoon, according to the Fairfield fire department deputy chief, Matt Luckenbach, who was on standby for the evacuation orders and has been on duty since the early hours of Monday.
Though the fire wasn’t advancing quickly yet, Luckenbach warned: “Three miles, as far as fire goes, isn’t far at all.”
On Bridle Ridge Road – one of the most vulnerable sites in Eastridge – four Fairfield firefighters joked, drank coffee and monitored the wind as they waited for the fire to approach, or not.
“It’s like the calm before the storm,” said Elliott Blanton, a probationary firefighter in his first year on the force. “Kind of exciting, but sobering too.”
Captain Mike Guerra, a 26-year veteran, said that the neighborhood was relatively protected because it was well landscaped, with few areas of tall brush.
While the state agency Cal Fire confronts the wildfire itself, the local force is positioned to protect people, homes and other structures should the fire encroach on developed areas.
“We’re not bulletproof, but we’re pretty well prepared,” Guerra said. “Waiting is the hardest part.”
But he said: “It’d be preferable to do all this preparation and have nothing happen.”
By Thursday morning, the fire had yet to cross into Fairfield proper, though the city remained on alert. Sergeant Matt Bloesch of the Fairfield police department said he hadn’t detected “any alarm” in the voice of the fire battalion chief this morning.
Many Eastridge residents expressed gratitude that they had time to prepare, unlike the residents of Santa Rosa, 50 miles north of San Francisco, where entire neighborhoods were razed to the ground early on Monday morning, leaving little more than charred heaps of belongings, skeletal trees and melted cars.
Bob Lando, 71, said he was “holding out hope” that the winds would die down, but added: “It’s nice to be prepared.” Lando’s son had not been so fortunate: his entire stock of 2016 vintage was “vaporized” when the fire burned his winery earlier in the week.
More than 20,000 people have headed to evacuation centers, with more leaving their homes as new areas are threatened.
Thirteen of the deaths 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-person reports had surpassed 600, up from about 200 a day earlier. But officials believe many of those people will be found; they said the chaotic evacuations and poor communications have made locating friends and family difficult.
Giordano said he expected 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. Six additional major fires have ignited since then. Control remains minimal: the deadliest fire in wine country reached 10% containment on Thursday morning, while others remained in the 1-5% contained range.
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 were going to hurricane recovery efforts in Texas and Florida.
The impact of climate change was hard to ignore, said Will Bucklin, whose vineyard in Sonoma Valley was touched by the fire on Monday. Bucklin’s Old Hill Ranch lost several buildings and about a dozen vines, but he said he felt lucky that his home and most of the plants had survived.
“We’ve had the wettest year on record and the driest year on record within the span of three years,” Bucklin said. “This is exactly what we predicted would happen.”
Officials in Napa County say all of Calistoga, famous for its hot springs and wineries, had been ordered to evacuate.
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.
The 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 air tankers, 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 – 13. 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.