Residents flee walls of flame to outrun fires

About 20,000 people heeded evacuation warnings
An aerial view of homes burned by wildfire in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif., on Oct. 10, 2017.
An aerial view of homes burned by wildfire in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif., on Oct. 10, 2017.

NAPA, Calif. — With roads still blocked by the police and fires still raging across broad swaths of Northern California, Matt Lenzi hiked through smoke-choked vineyards and waded the Napa River to reach the home his father lived in for 53 years. In its place, he found only blackened debris, blackened earth, and ash.

“Every piece of vegetation was gone,” said Lenzi on Tuesday, after going back in the vain hope of finding the pet cat that his father, Carl Lenzi, who is in his 80s, left behind when he fled for his life. “Even the barbecue melted, and that’s built to take heat.”

The fires ravaging California’s wine country since Sunday night — part of an outbreak of blazes stretching almost the entire length of the state — continued to burn out of control Tuesday, as the toll rose to 15 people confirmed dead, hundreds hospitalized, and an estimated 2,000 buildings destroyed or damaged. But state and local officials warned that with many people still missing and unaccounted for, and some areas still out of reach of emergency crews, those figures are almost certain to rise.

The two biggest and most destructive fires consumed more than 52,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties, propelled on Sunday night and Monday by 50-mph winds and threatening cities that included Santa Rosa, Napa and Calistoga. The winds died down on Tuesday, but were forecast to pick up again later in the week, and Chief Ken Pimlott of Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, described the two fires, and a smaller one nearby, as “zero percent contained.”

About 20,000 people heeded evacuation warnings, fleeing on foot and by car as the fires overtook their towns. In Sonoma County alone, 5,000 people took shelter in evacuation centers on Monday night, the county reported, and new evacuation orders were issued on Tuesday.

Survivors told of narrow escapes from walls of flame that seemed to erupt from nowhere on Sunday night and Monday morning, forcing them to run even before text messages and other alerts were sent out by emergency warning systems.

“We always thought the alert system would give us time, but there was no notice, no warning,” said Maureen Grinnell, 77, who lived in the hills north of Napa with her husband, Sheldon, 89, who uses a walker. “I was watching a movie with my 19-year-old granddaughter and I smelled smoke, and I looked out the window to see flames approaching.”

From that moment, they stayed with the house seven to 10 minutes, she said — just long enough to load the three of them, a dog and a handful of belongings into a car.

“By the time I started to back the car out of the garage, the house was already on fire,” Grinnell said. “I drove down the road through smoke with flames on both sides. It almost looked like the burning of Atlanta in ‘Gone With the Wind.’”

Pamela Taylor, 66, at first watched the fire from the mobile home park in Santa Rosa where she lived, thinking it was not near enough to pose a threat — and then, suddenly, it was. “A gigantic fireball jumped across the freeway to the trees around the trailer park,” she said, and within minutes, trailers and cars were ablaze, and people were fleeing.

“There was no turning the gas off, there was just running,” she said.

James Harder and his friends managed to save his business, James Cole Winery, a small-scale maker of high-priced cabernets, even as the nearby Signorello Estate winery burned. Harder said he saw a wall of flame 20 to 30 feet high descending a hillside toward his property, embers whipping toward him, and formed a bucket brigade with six other people, working through the night, scooping water from a 10,000-gallon tank meant to irrigate his vines.

“We just thought, ‘Keep working, keep working,’” he said. “We would have lost everything if not for our friends.”

All around them, in some of the most expensive real estate in the country, they could see neighbors’ houses going up in flames, their propane tanks exploding with ground-shaking force.

Next door, the gate to the Signorello property was open on Tuesday and a sign said “Open,” but no one was there. The reception area was destroyed, fires still burned from gas pipes there, and ash covered an infinity pool with a commanding view of the valley. But in the bar area, a refrigerator held a wheel of manchego cheese, beer bottles and soda cans, still intact.

How much of the season’s grape harvest was destroyed remains unclear.

Across the state, 17 large wildfires were still burning Tuesday, covering 115,000 acres, Pimlott said. An unusually wet winter produced ample brush, and the state’s hottest summer on record dried it to tinder, setting the stage for a rough October, a month usually marked by dry air and high winds from the north and east.

The entire American West has experienced a particularly brutal wildfire season, even as people in the Southeast have suffered the floods and winds of hurricanes. As of Oct. 6, wildfires had raced through 8.5 million acres, well above the last decade’s average of 6 million per year.

Most of the current California wildfires are in the north, including a large one in Mendocino County and several others in the Sierra Nevada, the north coast and the San Joaquin Valley. But in Southern California, a fire that broke out Monday in the Anaheim Hills burned through thousands of acres and about a dozen homes, sending smoke pouring into Orange County and closing the 91 freeway, the main route into the county from the east.

The winds whipping the flames in the area north of San Francisco Bay came from the north, and thousands of firefighters labored to build fire breaks on the southern flanks of the blazes to hold them back from populated areas. Supported by aircraft dropping water and fire retardant — ranging from helicopters to a Boeing 747 tanker — fire crews used bulldozers, chain saws and shovels to clear trees and brush, hoping to create fire breaks and starve the blazes of fuel.

A thick layer of smoke shrouded the region, and the Environmental Protection Agency rated the air quality as “unhealthy,” “very unhealthy,” and even “hazardous” in places. Many of the people taken to area hospitals were treated for smoke inhalation, and people walked through their neighborhoods and evacuation centers wearing paper masks, in hopes of protecting their lungs.

Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday visited the California Office of Emergency Services near Sacramento to announce that President Donald Trump had approved Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for a major disaster declaration and ordered federal aid to help the state in recovery efforts.

Pimlott said that the cause of the fires was still unclear and would be investigated. He pointed out that 95 percent of fires in the state were caused by humans in some manner, and said that even a small spark in windy, dry conditions could grow quickly into a large fire.

Fires interrupted utilities in and around wine country, including cellular service, which ranged from spotty to nonexistent, making it harder for people to reach family and friends and for emergency workers to search for the missing. Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, said that about 77 cellphone sites were damaged or destroyed.

Ramon Gallegos Jr., who works in the wine industry, said he had no electricity at home and had been unable to contact friends and co-workers.

“Who’s OK?” he asked. “Who’s not OK? We don’t know, we can’t get in touch with anybody.”

With large areas still under evacuation orders, frustrated residents congregated at roadblocks on Tuesday, pleading with police officers to let them through to their homes. At a roadblock near the Silverado Trail, the famed Napa wine route, a sheriff’s deputy chased after a car that had bolted through a vineyard in an effort to bypass the roadblock.

“We’re getting some chest-to-chest instances now,” said John Robertson, the Napa County sheriff.

Megan Condron, 37, of Santa Rosa, said she and her husband were able to save their wedding album, children’s baby books, some clothes and a case of wine before their home burned to the ground.

Soon after they left the house, a neighbor who was out of town called them, and asked them to save some letters from his house before it went up in flames. His wife, who died of cancer this year, had written the letters to their two sons, to open on their birthdays for years to come.

The Condrons turned around, but a police officer refused to let them through.

Now many people in the region must decide how, and where, to reconstruct their lives. Lenzi, who trekked overland to the remains of his father’s home, asked about rebuilding when his father, Carl, went to an insurance office on Tuesday to discuss damages.

“I’m not going to do it,” the elder Lenzi said. “This is your problem now.”

Categories: News

Leave a Reply