“It was an inferno like you’ve never seen before. Trees were on fire like torches.”
That’s the way Kenwood (Calif.) resident Marian Williams described the wildfire which quickly consumed the vineyards near her home.
“Leave immediately. This is a life-threatening situation.”
That was the warning posted on Facebook by the Santa Rosa Police Department. It was no exaggeration. At least 40 people have died in the Northern California wind-whipped wildfires that have been sweeping across the state’s wine country. But that number is expected to increase, as hundreds are still missing.
Details about the death toll in the wine country wildfires were unavailable. But early reports suggested that residents may have been caught unaware, many of them fleeing in cars and on foot as firefighters rushed to contain the outbreak. A number of roadways, including highways, were blocked by fire, the reports said.
It also appears that most of the victims may have been elderly.
An estimated 5,700 homes, businesses and other structures have been destroyed in the blaze. At least 100,000 residents were evacuated, quickly filling more than a dozen evacuation centers.
Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to ashes, as the fires consumed an area larger than New York City. In Santa Rosa, 50 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, “pieces of ash fell like snowflakes, and a pall of white smoke blotted out the sun.”
Trailers in a Santa Rosa retirement community were quickly incinerated. In fact, the fire was so intense, it burned through not only the metal and glass trailers, but also through safes that had been advertised as fireproof. Leaving community residents without important passports, papers and other valuables…adding insult to injury.
Did you know that the worst fires in Northern California wine country tend to hit in October? That’s when the dry conditions increase the area’s vulnerability. And it’s when the heavy “diablo” winds buffet the region. For firefighters, it can be extremely frustrating, like playing “whack a mole” where people’s lives are at stake.
About 11,000 firefighters, supported by air tankers and helicopters, continued to battle the blazes that have consumed more than 220,000 acres. In addition, about 50 search-and-rescue personnel, as well as National Guard troops, combed through tens of thousands of charred acres in Sonoma County, searching for bodies.
In some cases, they’ve had to use dental records, fingerprints, tattoos and serial numbers on hip implants to identify the badly burned victims.
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While in nearby Napa County, at least two other wine country wildfires “exploded,” according to the state fire battalion chief.
Hospitals in both Napa and Sonoma Counties reported scores of patients with fire-related ailments. One hospital alone had treated about 170 people, mostly for smoke inhalation, but some for burns. Other hospitals in the area postponed all elective procedures to free up resources for emergency care.
Ofelia Razo and her husband fled in a pre-dawn evacuation with just the bare essentials. When they returned about 10 hours later, Ms. Razo saw the smoking rubble in the distance and broke down.
But as she drew closer, she saw that the fire had stopped at her wooden lattice fence. Strangely, her powder blue trailer had remained untouched. Even the plastic flowers on her porch were intact, and her red rose bushes were only lightly singed.
“It’s a miracle!” she said. “Gracias, Señor!” (“Thank you, Lord!”)
Izzy, a 9-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog, managed to survive 36 hours alone after the wildfires destroyed her owner’s home. Here’s the Associated Press video clip of the joyous reunion: