Preparedness & Recovery

Death Toll Climbs to 15, Missing Person Reports Soar as Northern California Fires Continue to Rage

As firefighters continued to battle one of the worst firestorms in California history, federal officials vowed to help.

by Sonali Kohli and Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times / October 10, 2017
A fire truck makes its way through the Chateau St. Jean winery, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017, in Kenwood, Calif. Workers in Northern California's renowned wine country picked through charred debris and weighed what to do with pricey grapes after wildfires swept through lush vineyards and destroyed at least two wineries and damaged many others. AP/Eric Risberg

(TNS) - As the number of people confirmed dead in Northern California fires rose to 15, officials warned Tuesday that the toll could rise as multiple fires scorched upward of 100,000 acres.

Sonoma County alone has received about 200 reports of missing people since Sunday night, and sherriff’s officials have located 45 of those people, said Sonoma County spokeswoman Maggie Fleming.

The majority of the fatalities are from Sonoma County, where huge swaths of the city of Santa Rosa were leveled in flames from the Tubbs fire. Nine people have died in Sonoma County as of 11 a.m. Tuesday, Fleming said. Two people have died in Napa County, three in Mendocino County and one in Yuba County, Cal Fire officials said.

As firefighters continued to battle one of the worst firestorms in California history, federal officials vowed to help.

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.

"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 Napa County’s Atlas Peak fire — had burned 27,000 and 25,000 acres, respectively, Berlant said. 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.

The Atlas fire is now moving down the east side of the ridge into Solano County and threatening those living in Green Valley. The Patrick fire southwest of Napa was pushing toward heavily populated areas, and emergency planners warned that fire threatened to 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 to the fire line 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 burned upward of 100,000 acres and 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.

Leaping from ridge top to ridge top in grass and oak woodlands, flames raced across the heart of the California wine country, claiming houses, 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.

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.

The scene Sunday night when Brenda Burke, 55, fled her cottage north of Napa “was awful,” she said.

The fire “would move with the wind. You knew when a house went up because there would be a whole slew of smoke and you could hear the propane tanks exploding.”

Eager to find out if her home survived, she went back Monday morning, past fire-gutted houses and smoking lawns. When she got to her drive, she saw flames “from what appeared to be the front of my house.”

Later in the day she threw herself into volunteer work at an animal rescue organization.

Sitting outside a Napa emergency shelter with a dog and a cat pulled from a parked van, she managed a tight smile.

“I have what I’m wearing right now and my dog and my phone,” she said. “And I have friends and family. I will be fine.”

Meanwhile, in Anaheim Hills, a blaze had reached 7,500 acres by Tuesday morning and was 25% contained. It has damaged or destroyed at least 24 homes, Orange County Fire Authority spokesman Larry Kurtz said.

Santa Ana winds Monday, gusting 30 to 40 mph, helped spread the fire, as did the kind of brush that burned. Much of it was “light, flashy fuels,” including mustard grass and scrub oak, Kurtz said.

“Winds are looking a little bit better this morning,” Kurtz said. “We’re hoping the winds treat us a little better today than they did yesterday.”

Portions of the 241 and 91 freeways remain closed, and more than 5,000 Orange County evacuations were still in place Tuesday morning. Kurtz confirmed that 1,100 firefighters, 14 helicopters and six planes were battling the fire as of Tuesday morning.

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.



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