10 Dead, More Than 100 Missing as Wildfires Burn Through California's Wine Country
By Peter Fimrite, Jill Tucker, Kurtis Alexander and Demian Bulwa
A swarm of fires supercharged by powerful winds ripped through Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties Monday, killing at least 10 people, injuring dozens of others, destroying more than 1,500 homes and businesses, and turning prominent wineries to ash.
Starting in the middle of the night, the fires hopscotched across neighborhoods, raced across fields and jumped freeways. Wind gusts up to 70 mph pushed walls of flames nearly 100 feet high, throwing embers ahead like hot fingers into strip malls and subdivisions. Many people who fled the surge had enough time to grab car keys, perhaps a pet, but not much more.
And some didn't get out. Sonoma County sheriff's officials said seven people had died in that county. Two people died in a blaze in Napa, state fire officials said. At least one person was killed in Mendocino County.
In addition, Sonoma County officials received more than 100 reports of missing people as of Monday evening, said Scott Alonso, a county spokesman.
Facing one of the most damaging series of blazes in modern California history -- fires that left thousands of evacuees in scores of emergency shelters and parts of the wine industry potentially crippled -- Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Napa and Sonoma counties as well as fire-struck Yuba County. The move will make it easier for local and state officials to secure government aid.
The blazes blackened 103,000 acres and blanketed much of the Bay Area in cough-inducing smoke. And it wasn't just the North Bay that was hit hard.
In Napa and Sonoma counties, more than 100 people were treated at hospitals for injuries that included burns and smoke inhalation. Two patients with severe burns were in critical condition at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, officials said.
Hundreds of firefighters streamed into the region. The California Highway Patrol said it had used helicopters to rescue 42 people, some of them vineyard workers. Those saved from the flames range in age from 5 to 91.
But Chief Ken Pimlott of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said crews had "limited or no containment" on the fires -- and the situation had not improved by Monday night.
Many communities, Pimlott said, "were just overrun."
Officials were looking into the cause of the fires, which were also burning thousands of acres in Lake, Butte and Yuba counties. In Southern California, meanwhile, residents in and around Anaheim in Orange County were under evacuation orders as a fire raged uncontrolled, destroying at least 24 structures.
The fires occurred in a year of record-setting heat and persistent drought. They followed extreme weather events elsewhere in the U.S., including the hurricanes that ravaged Houston, Puerto Rico and parts of Florida.
Residents in the areas hardest hit by the fires described fleeing for their lives in the middle of the night, in cars or on foot, amid a disaster that stood as another stark reminder of the peril of wildfires in California at the end of the long dry season.
"It's not uncommon to have multiple fires burning," Pimlott said. "But I can certainly tell you it's becoming more of the norm now to have multiple large, damaging fires now like we're seeing today. These are the conditions we continue to talk about that California is experiencing."
Vice President Mike Pence, in California for political fundraising, said Monday evening he had spoken to Gov. Jerry Brown about the fires.
"The dryness of the climate, the strength of the winds, you all in California know much better than this Midwesterner does," Pence said. "I can assure you, as I did the governor, the federal government stands ready to provide any and all assistance to the state of California as your courageous firefighters and first responders confront this widening challenge."
In Mendocino County, sheriff's Capt. Gregory Van Patten said flames darted early Monday from the community of Potter Valley through rugged terrain to the west as wind gusts downed trees and power lines. The speed of the fire, he said, left little time for escape in Redwood Valley, a town of 2,000 people about 8 miles north of Ukiah.
He said at least one person had died, and that the number could rise.
"It looks like we will have multiple fatalities," Van Patten said. "There were areas where there just wasn't enough time to give an evacuation notice because the spread of the fire was so rapid. A lot of the area was overcome before we got ourselves injected into the situation."
Perhaps the worst damage came in the jagged path of a blaze that slammed into northern Santa Rosa called the Tubbs Fire, which had burned at least 27,000 acres by Monday evening and flattened several neighborhoods. The fire started Sunday in Calistoga and burned west through canyons and over hills, feeding on dry eucalyptus and pine trees in wooded, upscale neighborhoods.
Coffey Park, a 1980s-era subdivision just northwest of downtown Santa Rosa where 7,000 people lived, was leveled. Most of the homes burned, along with a Kmart, a McDonald's, an Arby's and an Applebee's.
Many homes were also lost in the Fountaingrove area east of Highway 101, and the Journey's End Mobile Home Park for seniors was flattened. The Fountaingrove Inn burned, as did a Hilton hotel and the popular Willi's Wine Bar. The Luther Burbank Center for the Arts and Cardinal Newman High School suffered serious damage.
Among those who left their Santa Rosa homes as the flames bore down were 11 members of the Flores family, who woke up and piled into two vehicles with four dogs after being jolted awake by neighbors. They said the air was thick with smoke and the wind was blowing so hard that trash bins toppled over.
"We couldn't really see anything," said Bradley Flores, 15. "We just got our dogs and got into the car and left. The wind was so bad our car was shaking."
Lance and Barb Cottrell packed suitcases, grabbed prized antiques and headed to a friend's house just in time.
"Our house is probably gone," Lance said. "We just finished it in 2014."
Soon, though, flames jumped west across Highway 101 and raced so fast into their friend's neighborhood that people ran for their lives. Lance jumped in his car and Barb in hers, and they tried to drive away. But they saw a house engulfed in front of them and had to make a U-turn. They ended up stuck in traffic before escaping down country roads west of Santa Rosa, avoiding trees that had blown down.
So vast was the havoc, and so sweeping the evacuations, that Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 people, was a virtual ghost town from side to side, with most businesses shuttered. Two hospitals in Santa Rosa, those run by Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health, were evacuated. Some of those transferred from Sutter were pregnant women in labor.
Another aggressive fire roared in the Atlas Peak area of Napa County, a famed winemaking spot northeast of the city of Napa and the Silverado Trail. Two people were killed, officials with Cal Fire said. Their names and circumstances of their deaths were not immediately known.
At least 50 structures and more than 25,000 acres burned. Signorello Estate, a winery on Silverado Trail, was ruined, and buildings at nearby Stags' Leap Winery burned, too. Several homes were destroyed on Soda Canyon Road.
Guests of the Silverado Resort and Spa on Atlas Peak Road said they escaped in a rush late Sunday, just before midnight, as flames approached. The resort had hosted the Safeway Open, a PGA Tour event, which ended Sunday.
"We were sleeping, but we kept smelling smoke," said Chris Thomas, 42, of Kirkland, Wash., who arrived in the Napa Valley late Sunday with his wife, Marissa Schneider, for a wine-tasting trip. They saw a fire truck pass, then were ordered to leave by loudspeaker. The power went out.
"It was surreal," Thomas said. "When I started loading stuff into the car, it was a hell-storm of smoke and ash. There were 30- to 40-mph winds. I couldn't even breathe, so I ran back to the unit to get Marissa. It was so smoky I went to the wrong unit. When I found her I said, 'Forget it, let's just go.' It went from being an annoying evacuation to something really scary."
They drove to downtown Napa and found a hotel room, wary of being evacuated again. The Silverado Resort and Spa somehow survived, a representative later said, and all staffers and guests got out safely.
The series of fires began to ignite Sunday and multiplied as the night went on. One damaging fire ignited north of Carneros, and another near Kenwood, east of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. There, dozens of homes, farms and cars burned along Highway 12.
Across the region, power failures were widespread. People flocked to gas stations in cities that were safe from the fires, to fuel up and buy water and other supplies. Evacuation centers were set up, then quickly filled, forcing more to open.
On Monday afternoon, families started trickling back to their neighborhoods in Santa Rosa.
One of them was Andy Luttringer. He said he could deal with the loss of his home of 19 years, but what really got him was that his wife's artwork burned. She died of cancer a few years ago, and her acrylic and watercolor paintings, many of which portrayed rural Sonoma County through her signature abstract figures, were a comforting reminder for Luttringer of his late love.
"I'm really mad at myself," said the retired 62-year-old police officer as he looked out across his property in Santa Rosa's Fountaingrove neighborhood, where there was nothing left but hot ash and rubble from the family's four-bedroom home. "I could have grabbed a couple of her pieces. The rest of the stuff I couldn't care less about."
Chronicle staff writers Michael Cabanatuan and Carolyn Said contributed to this report.
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