Wildfires continued to lay siege to huge swaths of Northern California on Wednesday, forcing the evacuations of thousands from iconic wine country towns like Calistoga and destroying thousands of homes and businesses in what Gov. Jerry Brown said was one of the worst fire events in state history.
Nearly two dozen huge fires had burned 170,000 acres since Sunday, and firefighters were bracing for heavy wind gusts through Thursday afternoon that they feared could wreak havoc after years of drought.
“We are literally looking at explosive vegetation,” CalFire Director Ken Pimlott said Wednesday, as 8,000 firefighters worked for the third straight day trying to corral fires that have killed at least 23 people and left hundreds missing. “These fires are burning actively during the day and at night, when you would expect the fire to subside.
“Make no mistake, this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event.”
The deadliest was the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, where at least 13 people have died since Sunday and 380 remained unaccounted for. By late Wednesday, that blaze had burned more than 28,000 acres – about 44 square miles of vineyards, hotels, subdivisions, grasslands and business districts – and convinced the Napa County sheriff to order the evacuation of the more than 5,000 residents of Calistoga.
“Forecasted conditions have worsened,” the sheriff’s department warned. “In the interest of life safety, it has become necessary to expand and implement the CalFire mandatory evacuation for the entire city of Calistoga.”
The town was largely empty by 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, except for Calistoga police officers going door-to-door spray painting a blue “O” in front of homes that had been evacuated.
Richard Heyman’s home got an “X” painted in front, signaling that he had refused to leave.
“I think they’ve totally overblown this thing,” Heyman said as he stood under calm, blue skies that carried no hint of smoke. “I don’t think it’s a big issue.”
Heyman said he had hosed down the composite shingle roof of his home as a precaution, but was not worried.
“We’re staying,” Heyman said. “It’s this wind that’s got everyone just freaked.”
Heyman was accompanied by his son, Marshall, 26, whose rental home outside Calistoga burned Sunday night.
“I’m not going anywhere until I have to,” Marshall Heyman said. “I’ve lived in Calistoga my whole life.”
Other residents weren’t willing to take the risk, especially after the destruction caused by the fire in Santa Rosa on Sunday, when entire neighborhoods were burned out.
“You’ve got to respect and understand what’s going on after you saw what happened in Santa Rosa,” said Gale Sysock, who packed up his Subaru with two road bikes and was heading for the coast. “You look at the map and you’re the middle of an inferno.”
The blaze continued to grow Wednesday, and authorities feared it might merge with the Pocket Fire, an 1,800-acre blaze threatening the picturesque wine country town of Geyserville, where flames were seen burning through the surrounding hills through the day.
Fire officials were mostly concerned that wind gusts that built through the day Wednesday would reignite fires they have been fighting since Sunday, when 17 major blazes broke out overnight. CalFire sought help from neighboring states, seeking additional fire engines and aircraft to add to the record pace of air missions that have been flying over the fires.
“We have access to every available asset in the country,” Pimlott said, but he added that the pace and size of the fires has been extraordinary.
“These fires are literally just burning faster than firefighters can run,” he said.
The California National Guard already has 700 soldiers and airmen working the fire scenes and is mobilizing another 1,800, including a military police unit, Maj. Gen. David Baldwin said Wednesday.
Thousands of residents remained in shelters, and more were headed to them Wednesday night as the Atlas Fire burned from Napa County south into Solano County, where sheriff’s officials urged residents of the Eastridge Development near Cordelia Junction to leave their homes.
Officials said the death toll of 21 was expected to continue growing as they reached neighborhoods and homes inside fire zones. In Mendocino County, where the scenic community of Redwood Valley was hit hard Sunday night, officials said six people had died.
“This is the worst tragedy Mendocino County has experienced,” Sheriff Tom Allman said. “This is the worst disaster we’ve ever had.”
Yuba and Napa counties each reported two dead, Sonoma County said 11 had died and more bodies were expected to be found. Another 380 remained missing, Sonoma Sheriff Rob Giordano said, but he added that he believed many of those would turn up in shelters or safe elsewhere.
Some evacuees complained that they had little or no warning that fires were approaching their homes until deputies or firefighters knocked on their doors late Sunday urging them to flee. Others said they had little concrete information from authorities about what was happening to their homes and neighborhoods.
“The lack of communication is frustrating,” hairstylist Jeanette Farrell said outside a community meeting at Browns Valley Elementary School in Napa. “But what is more frustrating is the rumors. They had me believing my house is gone.”
Instead, Farrell said her home had been saved, despite posts on the Nextdoor social media website indicating it was destroyed.
Farrell said she had packed her car Sunday after hearing warnings from neighbors about the fires, and that she didn’t hear from city officials about evacuating until she was pulling out of her driveway and a city worker came by to tell her to go.
Authorities blamed the speed of fires that erupted late at night for some of the delays in notifying residents, and said the fact that more than 70 cell phone towers burned down Sunday hampered some communication efforts.
Giordano, the Sonoma sheriff, dismissed questions of whether residents were given enough warning Sunday night, noting that with many people getting rid of landlines the automated warning systems that call entire neighborhoods do not cover all homes.
“If you don’t sign your cell phone up, you’re not going to get a warning,” he said.
Investigators have not released information on what caused any of the blazes, but Girodano said that in Sonoma “the devastation’s enormous.”
“This fire was unbelievably fast,” he said. “You look at what I know just from the deputies who had to run from everything, the timing is unbelievable.”
Evacuated neighborhoods remain off limits to residents and remain so into next week, he said. Meanwhile, up to 300 law enforcement officials are patrolling the areas and have arrested three suspected looters since Monday.
“We have had very few problems with looters,” he said. “We made an arrest last night and two arrests the night before. They were not arrested for looting, but we believe they were.”
The suspects were detained on outstanding warrant charges, he added.
In Yuba County in north central California, the Cascade Fire descended so quickly that it almost assaulted the senses, according to descriptions from some area residents.
Karyn Kiger and her husband had moved from Sacramento to a home near Loma Rica in 2015 to enjoy a more outdoorsy lifestyle, with animals and ample gardening.
By early Monday morning, they were running for their lives.
“It was really weird. Suddenly, everything got silent and still,” she said, likening it the eye of a hurricane. “And then you heard this roar. At first I thought, ‘It’s got to be a helicopter coming in…’ I’d never experienced wind like that before.
“I knew we were in trouble when I started hearing the propane tanks exploding,” she said.
The couple’s house of two years was spared, but some neighbors weren’t so fortunate.
Two bodies have been recovered from that area so far, and authorities believe at least two more people may have been killed there.
For 80-year-old Mike Moyers, who was awakened in time to see his neighbor’s house near Loma Rica catch fire, the salvation of his own home came down to his wife’s flower garden and 18, one-gallon milk jugs.
As the Cascade Fire erupted Sunday night in Yuba County, Moyers and his adult son were jolted from bed by an area-wide emergency call from the sheriff’s office.
“When I looked outside, I was totally surrounded by fire,” he said.
Some 300 feet away, the deck of his neighbor’s home had just caught fire and, within 15 minutes, that home was totally engulfed.
“It was amazing how fast that house went. It was a modular, and it was just gone,” said Moyers, who had trained firefighters and worked in the forestry industry before moving to Yuba County 12 years ago.
His wife, Sue, who had owned the property since 1984, was out of town when the fires broke out. But she left behind the tools for Moyers and son, Mark, to head off the flames.
Moyers’ wife, who was away in Oregon awaiting the birth of a grandson, kept a flower bed at the end of the driveway along Fruitland Road and around the property’s perimeter. The family would routinely fill up 18, one-gallon jugs of water to tote down the lane every three days to water the flowers.
They had just filled the jugs Sunday night.
“That’s what we used to keep things out, just dribbling it now and then and using shovels to beat things back,” said Moyers. “It was perfect.”
Moyers joined his 50-year-old son throwing water onto the wooden fence rails and posts and dousing spot fires in the leaves that were creeping toward the structures. The men focused their energy on protecting a propane tank and saving a large three-car garage and shop building near the main residence that would have jeopardized the home had it caught fire. A large olive orchard nearby was burning through the undergrowth.
The Moyers’ neighbor was not hurt. Neither was the flower garden.
The fire came right up to her flower bed perimeter and stopped,” he said, chuckling.