10 dead, 1,500 structures lost in California firestorm, among worst in state’s history
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office reported seven fire-related deaths late Monday. In addition, two died because of the Atlas fire in Napa County, said a CalFire spokesperson. One person died as result of the Redwood Valley fire in Mendocino County.
In Sonoma County, the dead were found “in the hot spots” of the fire, an official said.
“We are a resilient county; we will come back from this,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “But right now we need to grieve.”
The vast devastation over just a few hours made this firestorm one of the worst in California history, with Gov. Jerry Brown declaring a state of emergency. Officials said the fires in Northern California have scorched 73,000 acres.
Local hospitals were treating those injured while others are unaccounted for, officials said. Additional fatalities were possible as search efforts continued.
One of the raging fires had Santa Rosa under siege Monday morning, with a large swath of the city north of downtown under an evacuation order.
The area of Fountaingrove appeared to be particularly hard hit, with photos showing numerous homes on fire. The Fountaingrove Inn, a Hilton hotel and a high school also burned. Officials said homes were also lost in the community of Kenwood and at a mobile home park off the 101 Freeway.
Coffey Park, a large Santa Rosa subdivision of dozens of homes, was burned to the ground.
“It’s fair to say it’s been destroyed,” Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott said of Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood.
“Late last night starting around 10 o’clock you had 50 to 60 mph winds that surfaced — really across the whole northern half of the state,” he said. “Every spark is going to ignite.”
Northern California has seen its share of horrific wildfires — the state’s second-deadliest is the October 1991 Tunnel fire in the Oakland Hills, in which 25 people died. The Tunnel also ranks as the most destructive, charring 2,900 buildings.
But the combination of high winds, dried-up vegetation and low humidity driving flames into neighborhoods is more typical of Southern California.
“This is exactly what you would expect in the Southern California fall fire season,” Pimlott said.
Despite a wet winter, he said vegetation still hasn’t recovered from California’s punishing drought, and at the end of the summer dry season, was ready to burn.
Firefighters are hopeful the winds will calm Monday afternoon. But red flag weather conditions will persist into Tuesday.
The city of Santa Rosa imposed a curfew starting at 6:45 p.m. Monday until sunrise Tuesday to prevent looting of empty homes in the evacuation zone, said acting Santa Rosa police chief Craig Schwartz.
“We have had a number of reports in the evacuation zone and the fire zone of people driving around and suspicious behavior,” Schwartz said.While many evacuation centers were set up, some were filled to capacity due to the large number of people fleeing.
The Tubbs fire near Santa Rosa has burned more than 35,000 acres as of 6:40 a.m., Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said during a televised news conference Monday morning. Officials said the other large fire in Napa County — Atlas Peak — has reached 25,000 acres.
Schools throughout the Napa and Sonoma valleys were closed for the day, and cellphone service has been affected in Napa County, where residents and businesses are experiencing power outages and trees have been knocked down by the wind, officials said.
More than 50 structures, including homes and barns, have burned in the Atlas Peak fire alone, Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said during the news conference.
Residents described running from the approaching flames early in the morning.
Late Sunday night, Ken Moholt-Siebert noticed the smell of the smoke from his Santa Rosa vineyard just off Highway 101.
It was not until midnight that he spotted the flames: a small red glow growing a couple of ridges to the east, off Fountaingrove Parkway.
He ran up the hill on his property to turn on a water pump to protect the ranch his family has been raising sheep and growing grapes on for four generations.
Before the pump could get the water fully flowing, a small ember from the Tubbs fire landed nearby. With the wind picking up, the ember sparked a spot fire about 50 feet in diameter. Then it was 100 feet in diameter.
“There was no wind, then there would be a rush of wind and it would stop. Then there would be another gust from a different direction,” Moholt-Siebert, 51, said. “The flames wrapped around us.”
He ran for cover.
“I was just being pelted with all this smoke and embers,” he said. “It was just really fast.”
Moholt-Siebert retreated through a 150-year-old redwood barn on his property — where his son’s wedding reception had been held in June. He jumped a fence back toward his house and fell to the ground to catch gulps of less smoke-contaminated air before reaching his home.
As he fled with his wife Melissa in their Ford sedans, the flames reached their vineyard full of Pinot Noir grapes and crept toward a 200-year-old oak tree on the property — the namesake for the family winery, Ancient Oak Cellars.