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California wildfires: 15 dead, 180 missing

The Washington Post
October 10. 2017 8:30PM
Penny Wright weeps with husband Edward after arriving at their Fountaingrove home of 10 years to find it was completely destroyed in the the Monday morning inferno, on Tuesday in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The massive, fast-moving California wildfires that have killed at least 15 people came with hardly any warning, spreading into neighborhoods when residents had gone to bed, unaware that they would have to flee for safety. Many of them, officials said, have nothing left to come back to.

Officials expect the death toll to rise and high winds in coming days could complicate efforts to contain fires that have already torched 115,000 acres of land, mostly in Northern California’s wine country. Seventeen wildfires, some fanned by up to 50 mph wind gusts whipping across parched terrain loaded with tinder, have forced about 25,000 residents to evacuate and destroyed at least 2,000 homes and commercial buildings.

“These folks have lost everything. When you look at the destruction, it’s literally like it exploded,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said at a news conference Tuesday. He added: “Some of these folks were literally just sleeping at home in bed and had no idea.”

Residents will be allowed back to their homes once authorities are sure the neighborhoods are safe, Pimlott said. But that could take days, perhaps even weeks for some.

“This is pure devastation,” he said, “and it’s going to take as a while to get out and comb through all of this.”

Sonoma County appears to have been hit the hardest, with nine casualties confirmed and about 240 people reported missing, the sheriff’s office said. As of Tuesday afternoon, 57 of those missing have been found.

In Napa County, an elderly couple died after they were unable to evacuate from their home, Sheriff John Robertson said at a news conference. Charles and Sara Rippey, ages 100 and 98, respectively, had a caretaker, but she was unable to get to the couple in time, Sgt. Mark Foster told the East Bay Times.

To the north in Mendocino County, three people were killed and four others were seriously injured, Cal Fire said. An additional death was reported in Yuba County near the Sacramento area, well outside of wine country.

Fire crews received some badly needed reprieve Tuesday, when temperatures cooled down and winds slowed to single-digit speeds, said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director for Cal Fire.

“That’s given us a good opportunity to make progress on these fires,” Berlant said. “We’re hoping to continue to see less wind and cooler temperatures. That combination is a welcome sight compared to what we dealt with just 24 hours ago.”

The improving conditions allowed fire crews to slowly — and cautiously — contain the fires, but winds are expected to pick up again. The National Weather Service is predicting winds of up 30 mph with 45 mph gusts in the North Bay area from Wednesday to Thursday.

The fires, which first whipped up Sunday night, added to what has already been a severe fire season in the West.

More than 8 million acres have burned in at least four states, raising questions from across the political spectrum about the connection to climate change and forest management practices.


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