Wildfires driven by powerful winds tore through Northern California’s famed wine country Monday, killing at least 11, leveling neighborhoods and forcing thousands of residents to grab what they could and flee from fast-moving walls of flames.
Two huge fires in Sonoma and Napa counties were part of a series of blazes that raged across the north state, from Yuba and Nevada counties in the east to Mendocino and Lake counties in the west. Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said bone-dry conditions and high winds combined to whip sparks into firestorms.
“To be honest, pretty much anywhere in the state today (is threatened), and that’s not an exaggeration,” Pimlott said at a midday news conference.
Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 in central Sonoma County, experienced some of the worst urban damage from a wildfire in Northern California since the massively destructive Oakland Hills fire of October 1991, which resulted in the loss of 25 lives and 2,900 structures.
In the early morning hours Monday, the 27,000-acre Tubbs fire raced down the hillsides above Santa Rosa and struck the flat, densely populated landscape of the northern city. It jumped across Highway 101, destroying hundreds of homes. It burned down a Kmart store, a Trader Joe’s market and a McDonald’s restaurant. And it engulfed a large Hilton hotel in towering flames.
Fires continued to rage throughout the day, with huge plumes of black smoke suddenly erupting from commercial buildings and homes. Fire crews raced to each new emergency, pouring water onto rooftops. The northern part of the city was a post-apocalyptic scene of deserted streets, smoldering ruins and wailing sirens. Thick smoke hung in the air.
“It’s challenging in this urban environment because it’s really like a firestorm inside,” Pimlott said. All of the combustible materials in a city function as fuel, he said. As of midday Monday, firefighting efforts had focused largely on saving lives by evacuating residents ahead of the blazes.
At a mobile home park in Santa Rosa called Journey’s End, around 100 homes were razed by the fire, leaving twisted metal skeletons. Next door, about 130 patients at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center were evacuated as flames and smoke from the burning mobile homes lit the night sky. Patients at Sutter Health’s medical center in Santa Rosa were also evacuated.
“An evacuation of this magnitude is unprecedented,” said Deborah Burger, a nurse at the Kaiser hospital and president of the California Nurses Association. “This is really pretty devastating.”
A number of hospital employees had lost their homes in the fires, including a nurse who was in Puerto Rico as a volunteer assisting hurricane victims, Burger said. Patients were taken to hospitals in San Rafael, Sacramento and other locations, she said.
In the Coffey Park neighborhood, where block after block of homes had been reduced to rubble, Michael Singh, 33, walked his family’s dog. He said his brother woke him up pounding on his bedroom door at 3 a.m. before their family’s house was leveled. They raced away, with every house on fire and the sky raining burning embers, he said.
“There was a crazy wind, and it smelled like death,” Singh said. “The fire was overpowering.”
He said he’d long been expecting a natural disaster, but not a wildfire in the flat, landscaped tract of suburban houses that his family and many others had called home for the past 30 years.
“I’ve been waiting for an earthquake,” Singh said. “Fire was never something I expected.”
Nearby, Chris Cortese poked through the remains of his parents’ home looking for pieces of his mother’s prized collection of sad-faced clowns. He kept finding the clowns’ arms and legs amid the debris.
“Little things you pass by everyday, you don’t even notice it, and then you see it like this and it means something,” he said.
Many evacuees from Coffey Park ended up in the Red Cross evacuation shelter in the Finley Community Center, about three miles south of the devastated neighborhood. Residents of two convalescent homes had been brought there, too. Elderly residents slept in wheelchairs, Red Cross blankets draped over their faces, or laid in cots in darkened rooms.
Shelter manager Roy Pitts said volunteers and workers had served over 700 breakfasts Monday morning.
Standing by his pickup truck in the parking lot of the evacuation center, Leo Langer, 77, said he and his wife got an automated call telling them to evacuate at 1:30 a.m. and looked out to see that all of their neighbors’ lights were on. They grabbed their cat and medications, and Leo got some beer and wine from the fridge, before they left their home. Langer thought it had probably been destroyed.
The Langers live in the Fountaingrove neighborhood, in the hills above the flatlands of Santa Rosa, where the sprawling Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel burned to the ground. Another hotel in the area was also reported destroyed.
In Glen Ellen, a picturesque village in Sonoma County’s wine country, the 5,000-acre Nuns fire barreled downhill and cut a swath through homes, sparing one, incinerating another. Firefighters protected the center of the historic town, where wineries and estates line the hills east of Santa Rosa.
Many homeowners faced an early-morning nightmare.
As a wall of flames sprinted toward Highway 12 in Glen Ellen early Monday, Mike Turpin made a decision: He was going to stay and try to save his home of nine years.
“I stayed up all night fighting that fire,” Turpin said. “That was quite a show.”
Turpin watered the trees around his house, ripped out a dry wooden fence with his bare hands and stamped out spot fires with a shovel. Seven other homes that share a driveway with Turpin’s were destroyed.
“Someone was looking out for me,” Turpin said.
The Tubbs and Nuns fires were two of seven large infernos that ravaged the forested hills and lush valleys north of the San Francisco Bay on Sunday and Monday. Seven people were confirmed dead in Sonoma County alone, authorities said.
Firefighters had no containment on the Tubbs fire, which continued to threaten Santa Rosa as of Monday evening. Officials imposed a curfew in mandatory evacuation areas Monday night from sunset to sunrise.
Further north, the Redwood Complex of fires in Mendocino County had consumed around 19,000 acres as of Monday night, killing at least one person and seriously injuring two others, fire officials said.
The Atlas fire quickly spread to 25,000 acres northeast of the city of Napa and south of Lake Berryessa, killing two people, Cal Fire officials said. The Patrick fire west of Napa consumed at least 3,000 acres. The Pocket fire near Geyserville burned 1,000 acres. The Sulphur fire in Lake County charred 2,500 acres in a county devastated by the Valley fire in 2015, the third most destructive in state history based on structures burned.
In Monday’s fires, officials estimated that at least 1,500 structures had been destroyed and 20,000 residents had been evacuated.
Pimlott, the Cal Fire chief, said high winds and low humidity started the rash of fires around the same time. The conditions meant every spark – from a power line, a vehicle or another source – could potentially ignite a fire in dry vegetation.
“Under these kinds of conditions, the risk is just extreme of new starts, and that’s literally what happened last night and this morning,” Pimlott said Monday. “The planets literally aligned to have these explosive conditions.”
Pimlott said wildfires in Northern California seemed to have gotten worse in recent years, citing 2015’s destructive blazes – the Valley fire in Lake and Napa counties and the Butte fire in Amador and Calaveras counties.
“It’s not uncommon to have multiple fires burning, but I can certainly tell you it’s becoming more the norm now to have multiple damaging fires like we’re seeing today,” he said.
“I think what we’re going to find, when we talk to seasoned fire professionals here in the next several days, is they’re going to talk about conditions that they have not seen before,” Pimlott said.
“We were saying that two years ago in 2015, when the Valley and the Butte fires burned in these same areas, seeing conditions we hadn’t seen. Well I think we’ve raised the bar again in California just in terms of the conditions that we’re facing and the destruction and devastation.”
Bee staff writers Tony Bizjak and Benjy Egel contributed to this report.
Southern California fire destroys homes
Authorities say at least half a dozen homes have burned in a fast-moving brush fire in Southern California.
Anaheim Sgt. Daron Wyatt says the fire that broke out on Monday had stretched to about 4 square miles and is being fought by 200 firefighters, six helicopters and six airplanes. He says the blaze has been driven westward by winds toward heavily populated areas of Orange County, prompting authorities to expand evacuations.
Residents reported ash falling miles away in areas near the Pacific Coast.
One firefighter suffered minor injuries fighting the blaze.
An overnight shelter has been set up at a nearby high school for evacuees.
Regional authorities have issued a smoke advisory through Tuesday morning for portions of Orange and Riverside counties.