At Least 17 Dead as Firefighters Struggle to Contain Wine Country Wildfires

by | October 11, 2017

By Lizzie Johnson, Trisha Thadani, Melody Gutierrez and Peter Fimrite

Thousands of firefighters fought the aggressive march of wind-whipped wildfires that raged out of control Tuesday in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Yuba counties -- and the death toll rose to 17 as authorities began the grim task of excavating for bodies amid up to 3,000 ruined homes and businesses.

The horror of the disaster was underscored by a desperate effort by people to find relatives who have not been heard from, a problem complicated by downed cell phone towers. In Sonoma County alone, officials had 183 reports of missing people.

"It's devastating," said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who toured the fire-scarred region by helicopter. "I fully expect this will be the worst fire disaster in California history."

The death toll -- the number rose by seven Tuesday -- is "a fluid number" that is expected to continue increasing, officials said. In Sonoma County, where most of the dead have been found, Sheriff Rob Giordano said a team of law enforcement officers began the grim task of excavating ruins to search for human remains.

"This is a very active situation that is still developing," he said.

Authorities estimated that fires destroyed between 1,500 and 3,000 buildings, and on Tuesday night another 20,000 were threatened, including homes in the Green Valley area of Solano County where the fire spread from Napa County.

Thousands of firefighters from around the state and Nevada struggled to build containment lines and block the paths of the fires, which state officials are calling a "siege event."

Fire crews used helicopters and air tankers to drop hundreds of thousands of gallons of fire retardant on the southern ends of the blazes, which firefighters were struggling to keep away from undamaged parts of heavily populated areas, including Green Valley in Solano County, American Canyon, Napa and Santa Rosa.

The scramble began when as many as seven blazes started almost simultaneously Sunday night amid powerful winds, with gusts of up to 70 mph.

"Literally, in a two-to-three-hour period, we had seven different counties affected by fire all at once," said Deputy Chief Bret Gouvea of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, also known as Cal Fire. "And not just ordinary fires. Because of those wind conditions, these fires got out of hand very quickly."

Entire neighborhoods were turned to ash, forcing many people to run or drive for their lives late Sunday night and Monday morning. Entire mobile home parks were flattened. Among the businesses that were consumed were Signorello Estate Winery in Napa, a Hilton hotel in Santa Rosa and a nearby Kmart. Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa suffered heavy damage.

Of the deaths, 11 were in Sonoma County, two in Napa County, three in Mendocino County and one in Yuba County.

Flames continued to crackle through dry grass Tuesday, but the wind and dry weather conditions had subsided somewhat, minimizing the kind of dangerous hopscotching that occurred Sunday and Monday, with blowing embers igniting spot fires seemingly in every direction.

Still, officials said, winds were expected to pick up Wednesday and Thursday.

"We are far from out of the woods," said Ken Pimlott, the Cal Fire chief. "We have several days of fire weather conditions to come."

The dire situation was clear as the U.S. Forest Service was called in to help exhausted state firefighters battle 17 active wildfires, which have blackened more than 115,000 acres statewide, and, Pimlott said, the number is expected to keep rising. Conflagrations extended from Clear Lake almost all the way to San Pablo Bay.

"This is just pure devastation and it is going to take us a while to get out of this. This could be days. It could be weeks for some folks," Pimlott said. "When we look at the destruction it's literally like an explosion. These people ran out of their homes with minutes left wearing literally the clothes on their backs."

The three biggest fires were the Atlas Fire, which had burned 25,000 acres east of Napa and into Solano County; the Nuns Fire, which had blackened 5,000 acres, including the communities of Glen Ellen and Kenwood, causing significant damage to wineries and other commercial structures; and the Tubbs Fire, which engulfed 550 homes and 21 businesses on the northern edge of Santa Rosa, burning 27,000 acres.

The steady movement of the Tubbs Fire caused the evacuation Tuesday of numerous residents in the Bennett Valley, near Santa Rosa, where a ring of fire on a ridgeline at Annadel Heights threatened to devour a neighborhood.

Jimmy Grant had 15 minutes to stuff his van and got away with only a pack of beer, a crate full of pictures, clothes and a 60-year-old teddy bear.

"I should've used my big pickup," he said, as an enormous flare burst from the mountain.

The Atlas Fire was also creating trouble. It crested the ridge at Twin Sisters Road Tuesday afternoon and swept into Solano County as air tankers rumbled overhead dropping flame retardant. Fire crews cut a fire break on the mountain in an attempt to outflank the inferno as sheriff's deputies went door-to-door evacuating residents on Twin Sisters Road.

Gov. Jerry Brown added Solano County to an emergency declaration issued the day before covering Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte, Lake, Nevada and Orange counties, where out-of-control fires have caused damage and evacuations.

In between the big North Bay flareups is the Partrick Fire, west of Napa and east of Sonoma, which had burned 6,000 acres and destroyed numerous homes.

Investigators have not determined the cause of any of the fires, which destroyed the homes of as many as 20 Sheriff's Department employees.

Pimlott said firefighting efforts are focused on the southern ends of all the fires because that is where the north winds, known as Diablo winds, are likely to blow the flames when they return this week.

"Every fire that starts has the potential to grow into a very large fire very quickly," with the winds, he said. "We can't let our guard down."

Cal Fire said the Mendocino victims died Sunday night and Monday when the Redwood Complex Fire tore through Redwood Valley, a town of 2,000 people. Roughly 50 homes were destroyed in the town, located 8 miles north of Ukiah on Highway 101.

Two of the victims of the Atlas Fire in the heart of the Napa Valley winemaking region were identified Tuesday as Charles and Sarah Rippey. Charles was 100 years old, his wife 98. Napa County Sheriff John Robertson said they died while trying to escape their home on the 100 block of Westgate Circle, in an area that was ravaged by flames and suffered heavy damage.

Meanwhile, the search for the missing took on an urgent air in Sonoma County, where a massive array of emergency shelters had been set up for the 25,000 people who were evacuated.

It was unclear when evacuated areas might reopen, but the California National Guard was called in to prevent looters from paying visits to properties that had survived the flames. Mendocino County reported one looting arrest in the fire zone on Monday, and there were reports of suspicious activity near burned homes in Sonoma County.

More than 200 officers from neighboring agencies are helping patrol Sonoma County to prevent looting. While Santa Rosa will continue to enforce a curfew, one is not in place countywide.

"It's a very dynamic situation," Pimlott said.

Giordano said the fire was one of the fastest-growing he had ever seen. At one point, nearly 40 residents waited out the fire in an open field in the Mark West area with a deputy as flames licked around them.

"It was so fast, there wasn't a lot of time to do much," he said. "We are mobilizing as best we can."

Four people were hospitalized after suffering major burn injuries, and about two dozen others had less severe burns, state officials said. Dozens of people have been treated in hospitals for other problems such as smoke inhalation.

Some 75,000 people were without power Tuesday in the North Bay, down from a peak of 114,000 on Monday. Cell phone service was also spotty throughout the region after flames damaged 77 cellular transmission sites, officials said. In addition, gas service has been cut off to 32,000 customers whose homes or businesses lay close to the fire lines.

Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday that the White House had approved a major disaster declaration for California, pledging federal assistance for wildfire assistance.

"To California, we say through this declaration, we are with you, our prayers are with you and we will be with you every day until we put the fires out," Pence said.

Emotions were running high Tuesday as some residents saw for the first time that they had lost everything and others clamored to be allowed back home. Janet Upton, deputy director of Cal Fire, said five Cal Fire Academy fire cadets lost their homes.

"People were waking up from a dead sleep and running for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs, so the emotional toll cannot be underestimated," Upton said. "My family has been evacuated. My daughter and her wife and my sister and her husband and two children have been evacuated."

Even in areas where the danger has passed, the skies remained eerily dark. Gray ash and smoke cast a pall over the skeletons of trees, gutted buildings and burned-out cars that lined many roadways as wispy flames burst out in odd places where fire had passed, including highway guardrail posts.

Lizzie Johnson, Trisha Thadani, Melody Gutierrez and Peter Fimrite are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. 

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