Deadly California wildfires an 'inferno like you've never seen before'

More than a dozen wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through California wine country Monday, destroying at least 1,500 homes and businesses and sending an estimated 20,000 people on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames.

One person was killed in a fire farther north, in Mendocino County.

The state’s fire chief called the damage estimates conservative and said the fires were burning throughout an eight-county swath of Northern California, including Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties.

Numerous people had been hurt and some were missing, although no estimates were immediately available, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection director Ken Pimlott.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered after the blazes broke out late Sunday. Long lines formed at gas stations when many families heeded a middle-of-the-night call to get out. A spokesperson for Pacific Gas & Electric said 114,000 customers were without power.

‘Trees were on fire like torches’

“It was an inferno like you’ve never seen before,” said Marian Williams, who caravanned with neighbours before dawn as one of the wildfires reached the vineyards and ridges at her small Sonoma County town of Kenwood.

Williams could feel the heat of the fire through her car as she fled.

“Trees were on fire like torches,” she said.

With downed trees or flames blocking some routes, Sonoma County residents struggled to figure out what roads to take.

APTOPIX California Wildfires

A Napa County firefighter sprays water on a home on Monday in Napa, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

Fires also burned just to the east in Napa County as well as in Yuba, Butte and Nevada counties — all north of the state capital. The firefighting agency Cal Fire tweeted that as many as 8,000 homes were threatened in Nevada County, which lies on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.

Napa County fire Chief Barry Biermann said there were no reports of injuries or deaths, although the fires had burned more than 17,600 hectares. Crews had not yet been able to contain a fire heading toward downtown Napa.

“Right now, with these conditions, we can’t get ahead of this fire and do anything about the forward progress,” Biermann said. There were seven large fires burning in Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties, he said.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties.

California Wildfires

A law enforcement officer blocks a road in a burning residential area in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Monday. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

Smoke was thick in San Francisco, 96 kilometres south of the Sonoma County fire.

John Dean was driving to his Sonoma County home early Monday when he saw a house on fire along the road. Soon he saw more houses engulfed in flames.

“I mean blazing, falling down on fire,” he said.

Dean sped to his home in Kenwood, alerted neighbours and fled to the town of Sonoma. He was one of hundreds of evacuees who streamed into a 24-hour Safeway market overnight, while authorities set up an official evacuation centre.

Maureen McGowan was house-sitting for a brother near Kenwood, and said both of the homes on his property were on fire when she left. At the Safeway, she pointed to her feet, still in slippers. She had fled so fast that she hadn’t put on her shoes.

‘We’re focusing on making evacuations’

Officials did not yet have a count on how many properties were affected, either by the fire directly or by evacuations, said Belia Ramos, chairwoman of the Napa County Board of Supervisors.

“We’re focusing on making evacuations and trying to keep people safe. We are not prepared to start counting,” she said shortly after sunrise.

The “tremendous” wind gusts were making the fire unpredictable, she said. “It’s something that we’re having to be very cautious about.”

Ann Dubay, a spokesperson for the Sonoma County Emergency Operations Center, said the area where the largest fire started was relatively rural, but the flames “went through many, many neighbourhoods,” and authorities did not know how many structures were gone.

Emergency lines were inundated with callers reporting smoke, prompting officials to ask that the public “only use 911 if they see actual unattended flames, or are having another emergency.”

Business owner Andy Lahiji stood before a burned-out warehouse where he said he had lost his inventory of furniture and other property. He said it took fire trucks ages to arrive Monday morning.

California Wildfires

Two women hug as they watch houses burn in Santa Rosa on Monday. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

“They said, ‘We have so many other places to go, you have to wait.’ And then when they came, they had only a couple of guys,” he told the station. “I feel very sad. I’m glad nobody got hurt. Hopefully insurance takes care of it.”

The National Weather Service said widespread wind gusts between 55 km/h and 80 km/h were observed in the north San Francisco Bay region and isolated spots hit 112 km/h. The winds were expected to subside at midday.

Community centres, the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and other local centres were opened for evacuees.

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