Northern California wildfires leave 17 dead and hundreds looking for loved ones
By JEFF CHIU and ELLEN KNICKMEYER
SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) – Hundreds more firefighters and law enforcement officials headed Tuesday to Northern California to battle wildfires that have killed at least 17 people, including a 100-year-old man and his 98-year-old wife who were unable to escape their burning home.
Authorities hoped cooler weather and lighter winds would help crews get a handle on the fires, which are among the deadliest in California history and are still burning completely uncontained.
"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.
The extra firefighters came from throughout California and Nevada. The extra law enforcement officers will help with evacuations and guard against looting, Alexander said.
At least 100 people have been injured and 2,000 homes and businesses destroyed, according to authorities, who warned that all those figures were expected to climb in the coming days as more information is reported.
Among the dead were Charles and Sara Rippey, who were married for 75 years and lived at the Silverado Resort in Napa.
"The only thing worse would have been if one survived without the other," their daughter, Ruby Gibney told Oakland television station KTVU.
More than 400 miles away, flames imperiled parts of Southern California, too. Thousands of people were displaced by a wildfire that destroyed or damaged 24 structures, including homes. Hot, dry Santa Ana winds swept fire along brushy outskirts of Orange County suburbs and equestrian properties southeast of Los Angeles. More than a dozen schools were closed.
The blaze, which disrupted major commuter routes, spread over nearly a dozen square miles in less than 24 hours as a squadron of helicopters and airplanes bombarded it with water and retardant, and an army of firefighters grew to 1,100 by Tuesday morning.
At the other end of the state, residents who gathered at emergency shelters and grocery stores said they were shocked by the speed and ferocity of the flames. They recalled all the possessions that were lost.
"All that good stuff, I’m never going to see it again," said Jeff Okrepkie, who fled his neighborhood in Santa Rosa knowing it was probably the last time he would see his home of the past five years standing.
His worst fears were confirmed Monday, when a friend sent him a photo of what was left: a smoldering heap of burnt metal and debris.
Some of the largest of the 14 blazes burning over a 200-mile region were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. They sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) away.
Sonoma County said it has received about 200 missing-person reports as family and friends sought to locate loved ones. It’s possible that many or most of the missing are safe but simply cannot be reached because of the widespread loss of cellphone service and other communications.
Much of the damage was in Santa Rosa, a far larger and more developed city than usually finds itself at the mercy of a wildfire. The city is home to 175,000 residents, including both the wine-country wealthy and the working class.
The flames were unforgiving to both groups. Hundreds of homes of all sizes were leveled by flames so hot they melted the glass off of cars and turned aluminum wheels into liquid.
Former San Francisco Giants pitcher Noah Lowry, who now runs an outdoor sporting goods store in Santa Rosa, was forced to flee in minutes along with his wife, two daughters and a son just over 2 weeks old.
"I can’t shake hearing people scream in terror as the flames barreled down on us," Lowry said.
His family and another evacuating with them tried to take U.S. 101 to evacuate but found it blocked by flames, and had to take country roads to get to the family friends who took them in.
A 90-mile (145-kilometer) stretch of the highway is framed by the flames and a major concern overnight, said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services.
Highway 12, which winds through the heart of wine country, was also rendered unusable by the flames.
"Sonoma and Napa counties have been hit very hard," Alexander said.
The flames forced authorities to focus primarily on getting people out safely, even if it meant abandoning structures to the fire.
Firefighters rushed to a state home for the severely disabled when flames reached one side of the center’s sprawling campus in the historic Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen.
Crews got the more than 200 people from the threatened buildings, one firefighter said, as flames closed within a few dozen feet.
Fires from ruptured gas lines dotted the smoky landscapes of blackened Santa Rosa hillsides. Fire trucks raced by smoldering roadside landscaping in search of higher priorities.
The flames were fickle in some corners of the city. One hillside home remained unscathed while a dozen surrounding it were destroyed.
Kim Hoe, a 33-year-old tech worker from Penang, Malaysia, was staying at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, which was gutted by flames. He said the power went out around 1 a.m., and he and his colleagues started packing up when someone knocked on the door and told them to run.
"We just had to run and run. It was full of smoke. We could barely breathe," Hoe said.
Late Monday, flames began coming over a ridge in an area bordering Oakmont and Trione-Annadel State Park, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Summer Black told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (http://bit.ly/2wLgBge ). Most of the Oakmont area was evacuated earlier in the day.
October has generally been the most destructive time of year for California wildfires. What was unusual Sunday, however, was to have so many fires take off at the same time.
Other than the windy conditions that helped drive them all, there was no known connection between the fires, and no cause has been released for any of them.
Knickmeyer reported from Sonoma, California. Associated Press writers Paul Elias, Jocelyn Gecker, Sudhin Thanawala, Juliet Williams, Janie McCauley and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco, John Antczak and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles, Alina Hartounian in Phoenix and Martha Bellisle in Seattle also contributed to this report.
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