(TNS) - The largest fires in Sonoma and Napa counties continued to grow overnight Wednesday, threatening more homes and prompting new evacuations, authorities said.
Already, the fires have scorched more than 100,000 acres and left at least 17 people dead. Increased winds threatened to make containment of the fires even more difficult Wednesday.
Fire officials anticipate northeast winds of 10 to 15 miles per hour, with gusts up to 35 to 40 miles per hour, throughout Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties on Wednesday, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff.
By 7 p.m. Tuesday, the Tubbs fire that leveled much of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County had exceeded 28,000 acres with no containment. The Atlas fire in Napa County had grown to 26,000 acres and was 3 percent contained, Tolmachoff said. Other fires ranging in size from 1,800 to 21,000 acres burned throughout the area and in surrounding counties.
As of Wednesday morning, the count of fire-related deaths stood at 17, including 11 people in Sonoma County and two in Napa County. Sonoma County has received about 300 reports of missing persons, and has confirmed that 110 of those people are safe, said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Jones.
While some evacuation orders in Yuba and Nevada counties were lifted, allowing residents to return to their homes, officials estimate that upwards of 50,000 people are still evacuated. More people in Sonoma and Napa counties were asked to leave their homes Tuesday night.
“The (Atlas) fire became active overnight, started burning more of the community,” Tolmachoff said.
During a packed community meeting with emergency officials inside the Santa Rosa High School gym Tuesday evening, Sonoma County residents battered by the deadly wildfires were told that a “red flag” warning forecasting potentially hazardous fire conditions had been issued for Wednesday.
This comes after cooler weather allowed firefighters to gain ground battling multiple blazes in the county Tuesday morning, only to see the flames flare up again with afternoon winds.
“This is nowhere near over. This is still very dangerous,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said Tuesday night.
Officials hope, though, that they won’t again face the 80 mile-per-hour winds that stoked fires so quickly Sunday night.
In Mendocino County, where three people have died and the Redwood and Potter fires have reached a combined 21,000 acres without any containment, one resident recalled the rush to get out in time.
It was just after 1 a.m. Monday when Jaime Lynn Lojowsky woke up to a pounding at the door.
“There is a fire on the mountain,” she heard her neighbor tell her husband. “It’s an emergency. It’s an emergency.”
Lojowsky, who lives in Redwood Valley with her husband, Mac, and two young girls, looked out her back window. Normally, she’d see bright stars, the moon peeking between the redwoods, pines and oak trees. It was one of the reasons why she’d moved from crowded and light-polluted Southern California more than a year ago.
This time, white smoke choked the night sky. The hillside was on fire. Flames licked the backyard of her 1-acre lot.
Lojowsky’s husband ran out the door to knock on neighbors’ doors to wake them, telling them to get out. One home had already caught fire.
The winds picked up. The flames raced toward them.
“Jaime, the house is going to go. What do you want to take?” he asked.
She had minutes.
On the outside, the couple tried to stay calm for 5-year-old Isabella. Lojowsky asked her to grab some things she’d like to take. Isabella grabbed her blanket and a stash of Halloween-themed toys.
On the inside, Lojowsky panicked.
“We’re going to die. I don’t want my babies to die like this,” she thought. “This can’t be happening.”
Lojowsky roused her youngest — 2-year-old Lourdes — from bed. She piled the girls into her Kia Sedona. They were met with a cloud of white smoke when she opened her garage door. Ash and fire rained down on the vehicle as she drove down the driveway and into the main road. Her husband followed in a truck behind them. About a mile down the road, a wall of flames blocked their path.
It was the main way out. She’d never gone the back way — a windy, dirt and gravel mountain road through a canyon.
Some cars barreled through the flames. Others went off the road.
She was uncertain on what to do. If she turned back, would she be met by a raging fire?
That’s when she spotted a Cal Fire truck. The crew directed her to go back through the mountain pass. It was safe, they reassured her. She turned back and drove past her home. She zoomed by her neighbor’s house and saw the cars still parked outside. She wondered if they’d make it out. They had three young boys.
“They have to leave now,” she thought.
Her car climbed up the mountain pass, tailing her husband’s truck. She called him on her cell, asking him to dial 911 to find out what they should do. She just wanted someone to tell her what to do or where to go.
The sky was still full of white smoke. She could see the flames in her rearview mirror. Lojowsky just kept driving, looking forward and keeping an eye on the gravel road speckled with potholes. Her vehicle weaved on a dirt road through a dense forest of redwoods, pines and oak trees. She could hardly see the road in front of her.
Ten minutes later, Isabella broke her silence.
“Great news, Mom. I can see the moon,” she said. “I can see stars.”
Lojowsky, who has fire insurance, would later discover that her house and farm had burned down. Only the brick fireplace remains of Lojowsky’s three-bedroom home. It’s unclear whether her chickens survived. But her family, two dogs and cats had made it out alive.
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