18 December, Monday


Amid harrowing tales of escape, death toll climbs to 17 as Northern California fires continue to rage

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The death toll from the Northern California fires continued to rise Tuesday, reaching a confirmed total of 17 as multiple fires scorched upward of 100,000 acres.
 
Sonoma County alone has received about 200 reports of missing people since Sunday night, and sheriff’s officials have located 45 of those people, said county spokeswoman Maggie Fleming.
 
The majority of the fatalities are from Sonoma County, where huge swaths of the city of Santa Rosa were leveled by the Tubbs fire. Eleven people have died in Sonoma County as of 7 p.m. Tuesday, officials said. Two people have died in Napa County, three in Mendocino County and one in Yuba County, Cal Fire officials said.
 
Vice President Mike Pence said in a visit to California's emergency management headquarters that President Trump has approved a "major disaster declaration" for California. When he spoke, 13 people had been confirmed dead.
 
"Let me first say our hearts and the hearts of every American go out to the families of the 13 who've lost their lives. It's heartbreaking to think that many of the fallen represent our most vulnerable; in some cases senior citizens who simply were not able to escape the flames that overcame their homes," he said. "They are in our prayers."
 
As of 7 a.m. Tuesday, the two biggest blazes — the Tubbs fire and the Atlas Peak fire in Napa County — had burned 27,000 and 25,000 acres, respectively, said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. Both fires were uncontained, he said. Firefighters are hoping that winds will lessen enough Tuesday to allow crews to get a handle on the fires.
 
“Though our containment numbers haven’t gone up just yet, we’ve at least been able to hold these fires and keep them at their current acreage,” Berlant said. The Tubbs fire grew about 2,000 acres since Monday night.
 
Some of the smaller fires had some containment as of Monday night, he said: The 2,500-acre Sulphur fire in Lake County was 10% contained, and the 2,000-acre 37 fire in Sonoma County was 15% contained.
 
About 20,000 people evacuated their homes Sunday night and Monday, and there were additional evacuations in the Tubbs fire area and in Yuba County overnight, Berlant said.
 
Red flag warnings in effect throughout much of Northern California had expired as of Tuesday morning, Berlant said. Winds of up to 50 mph Sunday night helped spread the flames.
 
“Overnight, the wind that had fanned these fires had really decreased, and that gave us an opportunity to really take a stand against these fires,” Berlant said early Tuesday. “We are again today hoping to see very little wind compared to Sunday.”
 
But the cool and quiet of night did not stymie the progress of the Atlas fire, which stretched across the hills east of Napa and sparked a chain of more fires to the west.
“They continue to move. They were moving all night,” burning more structures in their wake, Cal Fire incident commander Kevin Lawson said Tuesday morning.
 
On Tuesday, the Atlas fire was moving down the east side of a ridge into Solano County and threatening residents of Green Valley. The Partrick fire southwest of Napa was pushing toward heavily populated areas, and emergency planners warned that the fire could grow.
 
A few miles north, the community of Glen Ellen continued to be threatened by the Nuns fire burning in the Mayacamas Mountains.
 
Fire behavior specialist Jon Heggie told crews heading out at dawn Tuesday to be prepared for the fires to turn north and east into dry brush “with 80% to 90% probability of ignition.”
 
As of about 7:30 p.m. Monday, the 16 fires in Northern California had destroyed at least 1,500 homes, businesses and other structures.
 
Several thousand firefighters from across the state are battling the blazes, and some strike teams from Southern California have been sent north, Berlant said. The California National Guard has deployed six additional helicopters to aid in firefighting efforts.
 
And evacuees will not be able to return to their homes for some time, he said.
 
“Many of these fires, it’s going to take several more days, even potentially more weeks, before we have full containment,” Berlant said.
 
Still, some tried to get back to their houses Tuesday.
 
It took Brady Harvell almost two hours to find what he was looking for in the rubble of his parents’ home on the northwest corner of Santa Rosa.
 
Using a small spade to move ashes aside, Harvell had been searching for the Army dog tags he gave his father in 2013 when he returned from deployment in Iraq. At 12:40 p.m. he reached down and pulled it out of a gray pile. Harvell held it up and shouted: “Got it! Oh, my God! Got it!”
 
Marveling over the discolored and misshapen treasure in the palm of his hand, he said: “I grew up here, all my memories are from this very spot. It’s where I played and learned right from wrong. But the fire destroyed every photograph my mother and father had of me. It took all our memories, except this one.”
 
Harvell reached into his pocket and pulled out a cellphone and dialed.
 
“Love you, Brady,” his father said at the other end of the line.
 
“Love you, Dad,” Harvell replied.
 
Lance Thomspon, 75, returned to his Hidden Valley neighborhood Tuesday to find streets filled with broken utility poles and huge tangles of smoldering power lines. Some streets were blocked by yellow police tape.
 
Once home to stately two-story brick homes fronting winding, narrow lanes gated by 100-foot pine trees, most of the neighborhood was reduced to ashes, twisted metal and broken water mains splashing onto heaps of blackened beams. The only things left standing were the skeletal trunks and limbs of charred pine trees and dozens of lonesome chimneys.
 
Thompson was one of the lucky ones. He didn't lose his home.
 
Leaping from ridge top to ridge top in grass and oak woodlands, flames raced across the heart of the California wine country, claiming houses, hotels, at least one winery and a dairy.
 
In Santa Rosa, the Tubbs fire leveled an entire neighborhood, burned a Hilton hotel, turned big-box stores into smoking ruins and prompted the evacuation of two hospitals — Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital and Kaiser's Santa Rosa Medical Center.
 
At the Fountaingrove Inn, the fire left behind only the steel frame, now crooked in many places, and parts of the stone walls. A mess of tangled rebar, broken piping and blackened tree limbs lay strewn above piles of rubble. Water pipes hung askew and broken glass littered the hedges.
 
Amazingly, at the far side of the inn, a dry fountain, two wooden tables and about a dozen wooden chairs sat intact.
 
Farther up the hill at the sprawling Hilton site, small fires still smoldered and occasional pieces of debris rained down. On the far end of the property the pool and sitting area around it were untouched.
 
Though the conditions that fed the blazes — high winds from the interior, dried-up vegetation and low humidity — are more typical of Southern California’s fall fire season, the north has seen its share of horrific autumn wildfires.
 
The state’s second-deadliest blaze is the October 1991 Tunnel fire in the Oakland and Berkeley hills, which erupted on a quiet Sunday and killed 25 people.
 
The Tunnel fire also ranks as the most destructive wildfire in California history, consuming 2,900 structures.
 
Two years ago the Valley fire roared across Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties, killing four people and destroying 1,995 buildings.
 
Survivors’ accounts and sheriff’s dispatch recordings tell harrowing tales of the chaos that struck Sunday night.
 
Eric Anderson managed a narrow escape from his home on Mark West Springs Road, where the flames swooped down just before 10 p.m. and exploded into the town below, destroying hundreds of homes.
 
“It just came through there, like a blowtorch,” said Anderson, a contractor. “I saw fire trucks racing up Martin West and then, five minutes later, I saw them racing down. I said, time to get out of here.”
 
Anderson said residents in the wooded area, which is dotted with million-dollar homes, had little warning. As he loaded the last box of possessions into his car, a flurry of embers flew overhead, setting off spot fires throughout the hillside community.
 
Meanwhile in Napa County, terror that swept in with the wind-driven fire over those living on Atlas Peak was evident in the chaos that erupted in a span of less than 10 minutes over the Napa County sheriff’s dispatch radio late Sunday night.
 
The distress calls, crackling over the radio since 10 p.m., arrived in rapid fire by 10:42 p.m.
 
“Parents trapped in garage,” one officer radioed in to the central dispatcher, giving an Atlas Peak Road address, followed by another warning: “The fire is moving quickly through here.”
 
Two minutes later, the dispatcher sent help to a second house on the road: "Two people trapped.”
 
Barely a minute later, a call came in for another house on the road: "An elderly lady trapped.”
 
At the same time, an officer on scene radioed in the loss of a nearby house. “It is on fire now, it looks like they evacuated,” he said.
 
The dispatcher sent out an all-points request for “any units in the area.”
 
“Two people called, advising their house is on fire, and they need help evacuating.”
 
A minute later, she repeated the call.
 
“Is anybody able to go to 2232 for two people trapped in a house on fire?”
 
Two deaths have been confirmed from the fire that tore through the neighborhood. Charles and Sara Rippey, ages 100 and 99.
 
One woman died as she was trying to flee the Cascade fire in Yuba County, county spokesman Russ Brown said.
 
The woman was in a convoy of cars traveling on Lone Tree Way in the town of Loma Rica, Brown said, when her car veered off the road amid heavy smoke.
 
 
 

LA Times

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