‘Hell on earth’: Death toll mounts as firefighters try to save entire towns

The death toll from Northern California’s devastating wildfires grew to 41 on Saturday – the deadliest period in the state’s fire history – but an army of 10,000 firefighters was working to save neighborhoods and entire wine country towns from winds that began fueling the blazes before dawn.

More than 3,200 residents of Santa Rosa and the city of Sonoma were ordered from their homes in the darkness about 4 a.m. as fires suddenly approached, bringing the total evacuated since Oct. 8 to more than 100,000, Cal Fire said. More structures in the Sonoma hills burned early Saturday, but officials said they did not know how many yet. Statewide, more than 5,700 structures have burned, including nearly 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa.

“Nothing has been this bad that I’ve ever seen in this state,” Gov. Jerry Brown said Saturday in Santa Rosa, where he and California’s two U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, met with emergency officials and residents. “The devastation, the horror, the displacement, is truly something that none of us will ever forget.”

Some evacuations early Saturday were caused by a new fire that broke out Friday between the existing Tubbs and Nuns fires in Sonoma County, and officials said they did not believe it was a spot fire sparked by the others.

“It is a separate ignition, and we are investigating how it started,” said Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire spokesman.

Fire and law enforcement teams had been worried about the expected wind gusts and planned for an overnight evacuation, avoiding the last-second turmoil of the night of Oct. 8, when thousands of residents had only moments to flee for their lives.

Firefighters also benefited from winds that were not as strong as had been predicted in some areas, and because firefighters were determined not to lose the ground they had gained in recent days on the major blazes, which have burned more than 330 square miles.

“At our morning briefing, our incident commander said, ‘I’m asking you to knock it out and knock it out hard so we can get some headway out there,’ ” said Antonio Negrete, a paramedic with San Gabriel Fire Department, at base camp at Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

In the Oakmont area of Santa Rosa, where new evacuations were ordered, fire crews made what officials called a “very aggressive firefight” in conditions so dangerous that firefighters were plotting their own escape routes.

“This is a rapidly moving fire with very dangerous conditions,” Negrete said. “The winds are not being friendly to us.

“Conditions can change in a second. They are taking all protective measures, establishing lookouts, looking at their escape routes and looking at where their safety routes are. That’s how perilous conditions are.”

Firefighters are working in 24-hour shifts, followed by 24 hours off, and teams have come in from around the West and as far away as North Carolina and South Carolina.

The far-flung crews mean fresh legs to continue the fight, Los Angeles Fire Capt. Rick Crawford said at a command post in Oakmont.

“Fatigue is a factor, that’s why people as far as Seattle and L.A. are here,” Crawford said. “That’s why we’re here. It’s what we signed up for.”

Throughout the area, flames could be seen spread across hilltops and shifting winds dumped ash and dense smoke into neighborhoods as firefighters from Chula Vista to Corvallis, Ore., battled the swarm of fires dubbed the Central LNU Complex, where at least 20 people have been killed by the Tubbs and Nuns fires.

A converted KC-10 air tanker flying low and slow dumped retardant over an intensifying spot fire burning in a low canyon in the area as part of an attack using ground crews, bulldozers and helicopter bucket drops.

“High winds are obviously bad for fire, but they also pushed out the inversion, so we could get aircraft in right away,” said Brian McLean, a Cosumnes Fire Protection District spokesman.

Near the wine country town of Calistoga, where 5,000 residents were ordered to evacuate Wednesday afternoon as flames from the Tubbs Fire approached and winds increased, firefighters halted the fire’s advance two miles from the city.

“The city of Calistoga remains concerned of the shifting weather conditions but is enthusiastic the fire has not moved closer to Calistoga,” officials said in an announcement Saturday afternoon, adding that residents’ homes and businesses remain safe despite the evacuation.

The Sonoma County fires have killed 20 people since Oct. 8, and more than 200 remain missing.

Farther north in Mendocino County, Sheriff Tom Allman confirmed a ninth fatality, an 86-year-old widow named Margaret Stephenson who was found in the ashes of her Redwood Valley home on Tomki Road.

“This is hell on earth,” Allman said as he drove through the bed of ashes, gnarled cars and chimneys that was Tomki Drive. “This is such an all encompassing tragedy – you lose a 14-year-old boy whose grandfather was a friend of mine, an elderly woman and her caretaker, a grandma and grandpa who died together.

“My crew of eight deputies and detectives found Margaret in the ashes of her home,” he said, wincing back tears. “She’d sent me a pre-Halloween card 10 days ago.”

He had kept the card with Stephenson dressed as member of the royal family in his wallet.

“She was a wonderful, delightful person,” Allman said.

Stephenson died in the same area as Kai Shepherd, a 14-year-old who was found dead in his family’s driveway after his parents and 17-year-old sister tried to flee the flames early Monday. They were badly burned and remain hospitalized, with Kressa, the sister, undergoing surgery earlier this week to amputate both her legs.

Kai Shepherd was an eighth-grader at Eagle Peak Middle School, which plans to reopen Monday and have counselors available for students.

By Saturday afternoon, 16 large fires were still burning, and Cal Fire has declined to address what caused any of them, saying the investigations are continuing.

But Allman said witnesses in his county saw the start of the Redwood Fire early Monday that has since burned more than 34,000 acres.

“In 65 mph winds, a tree fell in Potter Valley, knocking over a power line, and it sparked a fire that went up the mountainside and went down into Redwood Valley around 1:30 a.m. Monday morning,” Allman said. “Cal Fire said we had gone 16 days in a row with low humidity … Here, the swath of fire was 10 miles wide.”

Allman said the fire struck an area that had never before burned, and said the region caught a break Friday night when strong winds that were predicted to sweep through did not materialize.

“We were expecting 30 mph winds and we didn’t get them,” Allman said.

Authorities in Mendocino County believe much of the danger has passed, and were allowing many of the 8,000 residents evacuated back into some affected neighborhoods. Authorities believe they have located all missing residents and do not expect additional deaths to be reported.

But the death toll easily could have gone higher, given the intense speed with which the fire roared through the valley.

“By the time we knew where the fire was, it had moved to a different place,” Allman said. “I had a deputy sheriff on Tomki Road who lost everything, he left literally with the shirt on his back. Neighbors knocked on his door and saved him and his wife’s life – Deputy Art Barclay and his wife, Denise. He woke up and was gone in three minutes, and his house was gone in 10.”

Bob Perkowski, 65, was another who fled Tomki Road steps ahead of the wall of fire, “which was 100 feet high,” he said.

“My wife woke me up and looked I out the window and everything was hot orange,” said Perkowski, who is sleeping on a friend’s couch in Hopland. “The fire was 100 feet away coming down a steep hill and my wife had to get our two kittens.”

Retired Sheriff Jim Tuso, a board member for the Redwood Valley-Calpella Fire District, said half the fire district “is gone.”

“All of us know people who lost homes and loved ones,” Tuso said. “It was the perfect storm of wind and dry conditions. All we could do was get out of the way.”

At Frey Vineyards in Redwood Valley, which touts its organic, vegan wines, some vines were burned and the offices and bottling facilities were damaged. But much of the vineyard remained intact, and co-owner Matt Frey said he already had arranged with three other wineries to help crush their grapes and bottle wine.

Frey said he and his wife and two small children fled the fire in a vehicle, but turned back because of the flames and headed for a steel warehouse at the winery.

Frey deposited his wife and children inside, where they were protected by a pond on one side and gravel from a roadway, while he jumped on a backhoe and began scraping the ground with its bucket to put out spot fires.

“Everything had already burned around us,” Frey said. “I was just putting out spot fires, I had eight to 10 like that. And my wife and kids were keeping an eye on the other buildings.”

Frey, 60, said he was already back in business, and that he was more concerned with his neighbors in his tight-knit, rural community.

“I’m more concerned with the families that lost their lives and homes down the road,” he said. “We’re lucky.”

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

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