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At least 10 dead, 1,500 structures lost in Northern California firestorm, among worst in state's history

At least 10 people have died and at least 1,500 homes, businesses and other structures have been destroyed as more than 14 fires ravaged eight counties throughout Northern California on Monday, authorities said.

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.

Update: Northern California death toll rises to 11 as fires continue statewide>>

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.

As he drove through falling embers and smoke he thought about what he left behind. The sheep on his ranch, he thought, would be safe since they were on shortly cut wet grass. He left behind family mementos and furniture from his grandparents.

The property was dotted with old valley and black oak as well as some California ash trees.

"That is probably all gone," Moholt-Siebert said. "I have a feeling there is not going to be much left."

Smoke from the fires drifted into the Bay Area, into San Francisco and as far south as San Jose.

“The smell of smoke is everywhere throughout the county,” Napa County spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said.

In Santa Rosa, Kaiser Permanente Hospital and Sutter Hospital were evacuated.

“We have safely evacuated the Santa Rosa medical center due to fires burning in the area. Many patients were transported to Kaiser Permanente in San Rafael and other local hospitals,” Kaiser spokeswoman Jenny Mack said in an email. “All scheduled appointments and surgeries have been canceled for the day in Santa Rosa and the Napa medical offices.”

The Santa Rosa fire began around 10 p.m. The cause of the fires is still under investigation.

Upward of 300 firefighters are battling the blazes in Napa County, she said. There are three evacuation centers for Napa County residents, though one — the Crosswalk Community Church — is full, she said. The other two are the Calistoga Fairgrounds and at Napa Valley College.

Those who evacuated described a chaotic scene.

Around 2 a.m., the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office ordered evacuations around Kay Drive and Mark West Station Road in Windsor. Jen Ancic, 31, fled with her two young sons and boyfriend.

As the family drove north on U.S. Highway 101, Ancic said she could see buildings and trees burning.

“The whole town was on fire,” she said. “It was crazy."

A Santa Rosa native, Ancic said that fires in the mountains are not uncommon, but “nothing like this has happened in Santa Rosa.”

She was devastated to learn from online news reports that Coffey Park, where she’d played as a child and had recently held a recent birthday party for her son, had burned. “There’s nothing left,” Ancic said.

Weather conditions — strong winds and high temperatures — made conditions ripe for a major inferno.

“We also had really gusty winds and really warm temperatures,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Mehle. “This time of year it does happen quite a bit. For the San Francisco Bay Area, our summer is late September to early October; that’s when we have our warmest and driest conditions.”

The destructiveness of the fires shocked officials. The worst fire in recent California history was the Cedar blaze in San Diego County in 2003, which destroyed more than 2,800 homes. The 2007 Witch fire, also in San Diego County, destroyed more than 1,600. Both of those fires occurred in October.

“This time of year is when historically the state’s largest, most damaging and most deadly fires have occurred," Upton said. “Critical fire conditions fanned by high winds" act as "a fuse for sparks," she said.

A key reason why the fires burning through Napa and Sonoma counties became so devastating was that the ignitions happened at the worst possible moment: extremely dry conditions combined with so-called Diablo winds that fanned flames on the ridgetops with gusts as high as 70 mph.

It’s similar to the conditions that caused one of the most destructive blazes in Northern California history, the October 1991 firestorm that struck the Oakland and Berkeley hills that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,300 single-family homes.

The wine country fires so far haven’t approached that level of catastrophe, with officials reporting at least 1,500 structures lost, in part because the area burned isn’t as densely populated as the area that was hit hard in 1991.

Staffers at Safari West, a wildlife preserve in Santa Rosa, fled the property Sunday night, but some employees returned Monday afternoon to find the fire “basically jumped over” the preserve Sunday night.

“There are still a lot of fires all around so the situation is very dynamic at the moment,” Safari West executive director Keo Hornbostel wrote in an email.

The 400-acre property is known for its rhinos, giraffes, zebras and other animals. Guests also can stay in tents on site.

Marie Martinez, conservation and outreach manager at Safari West, said that staff and guests left the facility Sunday night, with staffers taking some birds and a tortoise with them.Erin Harrison, director of marketing and communications at Oakland Zoo, said the zoo is willing to coordinate evacuation of the Safari West animals if needed.

Willon reported from Santa Rosa, St. John from Napa.

Los Angeles Times staff writers Nina Agrawal in Santa Rosa, Makeda Easter, Rong-Gong Lin II, Joy Resmovits, Javier Panzar, Dakota Smith, Bettina Boxall and Geoffrey Mohan contributed to this report.

sonali.kohli@latimes.com

Twitter: @Sonali_Kohli

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UPDATES:

6:50 p.m.: This article was updated with updated acreage numbers.

6:20 p.m.: This article was updated with information about a curfew in Santa Rosa and the Safari West wildlife preserve.

5:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the deaths and a quote from a Sonoma County supervisor.

4:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional deaths.

3:40 p.m.: This article was updated with more information about the Santa Rosa fire.

2:20 p.m.: This article was updated with more details from evacuees.

1:10 p.m.: This article was updated with news of the death in Mendocino County.

12:05 p.m.: This article was updated with information about “Diablo winds.”

11:09 a.m.: This article was updated with witness accounts, weather conditions.

10:15 a.m.: This article was updated with more details about the fires and damage.

9:50 a.m.: This article was updated with more details about acreage and areas affected.

9:15 a.m.: This article was updated with Gov. Jerry Brown’s declaration of a state of emergency.

8:25 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details about the fires in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties.

7:30 a.m.: This article was updated with more details about the size of the fires and information concerning hospital evacuations.

This article was originally published at 6:40 a.m.

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