CHP investigates fatal water truck accident
Cal Fire incident commander Bret Gouvea said the California Highway Patrol is investigating the death of a worker who was killed in a single-vehicle crash in Napa County early Monday.
The victim worked for a private company under contract to supply water to the firefighters, Gouvea said.
An earlier Cal Fire statement said the driver of a water tender truck died in a rollover crash on Oakville Grade.
“He was helping to fight the fires and do the right thing,” said CHP Capt. Mike Palacio. “Unfortunately, at this point, we don’t know what happened.”
Palacio said it would likely take a while before investigators determined the cause of the accident.
“It will probably take weeks, sometimes longer, to figure out how that happened,” he said.
Firefighters make significant progress Monday, but face challenges in Oakmont
Firefighters made another night of steady progress against the wildfires burning in California’s wine country, gaining containment on four fires as temperatures dropped and winds died down.
More than 4,000 firefighters from across California worked to contain the fires. As of Monday morning, the 36,390-acre Tubbs fire was 70% contained; the 51,064-acre Atlas fire was 68% contained; and the 11,889-acre Pocket fire was 40% contained.
In the last week, the fires have scorched more than 200,000 acres, destroyed or damaged more than 5,500 homes, displaced 100,000 people and killed at least 41.
The Nuns fire claimed its first identified victim Monday morning, Cal Fire said. A private contract driver was delivering a tank full of water to help fight the Nuns fire when the large vehicle rolled over on Oakville Grade in Napa County around 7 a.m. Monday, killing the driver, according to Cal Fire and California Highway Patrol officials.
“This has been the deadliest week that we’ve experienced here in California… from wildfires,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said Monday.
Taken separately, the Tubbs fire ranks third on the state’s list of deadliest fires, claiming at least 22 lives, and the Redwood fire, responsible for eight deaths, ranks 10th on the list.
Firefighters were looking forward to light winds Monday, but high morning temperatures combined with low humidity could be a challenge for those battling the flames, Berlant said.
Crews gained more of a toehold against the 48,627-acre Nuns fire, which was 50% contained. But a smaller blaze next to the Nuns fire that ignited Saturday near the Oakmont neighborhood of Santa Rosa continued to cause trouble.
Overnight, the 875-acre blaze jumped over bulldozed fire breaks, and merged with a corner of the Nuns fire burning near Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Cal Fire officials told firefighters at a morning briefing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. The fire, called the Oakmont branch, was 15% contained.
“We’ve got ahold of this horse, but it’s bucking us still in some areas,” incident commander Bret Gouvea said.
Some residents in the Oakmont area had not left their homes, Santa Rosa fire chief Tony Gossner said. Local law enforcement will be knocking on doors in an effort to change that.
“We’re going to do our best to get people out who don’t want to come out,” Gossner said.
The area where the Oakmont branch is burning is relatively sparsely populated, but if the fire moves west, it could threaten more than 2,000 homes west of Los Alamos Road, Gossner said.
At Napa vineyards untouched by wildfires, the grapes must still be picked
Mario Maldonado didn’t wear a mask. The 22-year-old field laborer thought it would slow him down. Besides, he doesn’t like to cover his face when he tends to the vineyards on most nights.
But this Napa Valley harvest was different than most. A muddied pinkish glow emanated from the horizon. A haze hovered in the air and through the vines. A motor hummed from a generator that powered brilliant lights mounted on tractors idling behind the pickers. It illuminated the harvesters’ path and accentuated the fine ash and the dust swirling along with some moths.
After losing their home in Coffey Park, this family helped with fire relief efforts
Daniel Crowell and his 9-year-old daughter Iris loaded vehicles headed to Sonoma County at a collection center in San Francisco on Saturday.
Then they got a rental van and filled it to the ceiling with donated boxes of toiletries, gallons of water and other supplies to take to people in Santa Rosa.
“I felt helpless, and it felt like the best thing to do when you feel helpless is to help others,” said Crowell, 43.
The Crowells’ home in Coffey Park burned down last week. They spent a few days in shock, grieving its loss, but eventually sought a distraction.
“We have friends and family who have been supporting us and helping us, but I know there are people who don’t have that, and I felt like I needed to do something just to kind of help make sure people get through this,” said Crowell, who works at a school in Santa Rosa.
Crowell said his daughter was excited to help. He woke up to the smell of smoke on Sunday night and rushed out of the house with his daughter and 6-year-old son as their front lawn began to catch fire. “I knew right then, this is it -- it’s gone,” he said.
He said the family visited a Santa Rosa home owned by a friend on Sunday. They’ll be moving in next weekend, he said.
“It’s smaller than what we’re used to, but at the same time we don’t have any possessions, so I think it’ll probably work out pretty good,” said Crowell, laughing.
He visited their Coffey Park home on Tuesday. All that was left were his car and ashes, along with two metallic folding chairs that peeked out of the rubble.
Their new home is two miles away, and only three blocks from Iris’ school.
“That’ll be good for her, she’s always wanted to ride her bike to school,” he said.
Clear Lake neighborhood lost 158 homes to Sulphur fire
At least 158 homes have been destroyed in the area around Clear Lake in Lake County, according to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
Clearlake Park, a residential neighborhood on the lake’s eastern shore, was one of the hardest hit areas, said Chris Chwialkowski, a captain with the Sheriff’s Office.
As the fires raged Monday morning, some residents had to be picked up off their docks by boat patrols, he said.
The neighborhood was in the path of the Sulphur fire, which is now 70% contained. The fire has burned at least 2,207 acres, according to Cal Fire.
After the devastation, Santa Rosa churchgoers pray together
425 homes destroyed by Mendocino County fires
The Redwood Valley and Sulphur fires burning in Mendocino County have destroyed at least 425 homes, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department. At least four commercial structures have been destroyed.
As of Sunday morning, the combined fires have burned more than 37,207 acres. The fires are 37% contained.
Some neighborhoods in Redwood Valley, Willits and Potter Valley are being repopulated at noon, according to the department. A list of the areas is available on the department’s Facebook page.
38 people confirmed dead in Northern California fires
Officials confirmed Saturday that 38 people in four counties had died as a result of the fires in Northern California in the last week.
Twenty people died in Sonoma County
Eight people died in Mendocino County
Six people died in Napa County
Four people died in Yuba County
Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano announced his county’s latest figures at a news conference Saturday afternoon, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection confirmed the other three counties’ death tolls.
Officials in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties have released the names of more than 15 of the victims, including Charles and Sara Rippey of Napa. The elderly couple -- he was 100, she was 98 -- died when fire overwhelmed their home in Napa.
For many immigrants fleeing wildfires and smoke-filled air, shelter is the beach
Patty Ginochio saw the long line of headlights arriving in the early-morning gloom.
When day broke, four hours later, the beaches of the coastal town of Bodega Bay, straddling Highway 1, teemed with refugees fleeing the wildfires that had destroyed thousands of homes and killed dozens of people.
Many of the arrivals were immigrants, who huddled together and spoke their worries in Spanish.
Some parked into turnouts and slept in their vehicles. Others hunkered down on the cold asphalt, bundled up in blankets. Ginochio opened up her restaurant, Ginochio’s Kitchen, and served free meals to an estimated 300 people.
An assemblyman and a dentist, he’s helping identify Northern California bodies
There’s often little politicians can do when wildfires strike, besides comfort the residents who lost their homes and monitor emergency efforts to make sure they’re getting the help they need.
California Assemblyman Jim Wood has another job.
“Most of my work is in the morgue at this point,” he said.
A Democrat from Healdsburg, Wood is also a dentist who is helping law enforcement identify victims of the deadly fires in Northern California.
“These are my constituents,” he said.
Wood represents an enormous, mostly rural district stretching from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border in the north. There aren’t many people in the country with his skills and experience. So when the latest fires started, he said, “I knew at some point I would be called.”
It’s the kind of work he has done with sheriff’s offices for years. Right now, he’s working to identify bodies in Sonoma County, where there have been at least 19 deaths related to the Tubbs fire. He’ll likely help Mendocino, too, where at least eight people have died.
Sometimes bodies are recovered mostly intact. Other times, there are only bone fragments.
It’s slow work, and getting the right dental records to identify the remains can be difficult.
“It’s a process that will take awhile,” Wood said.
At a time when distraught families are desperate for information about missing loved ones, Wood said he is grateful there’s something he can do to help bring a sense of conclusion.
“There’s times we’re all standing around wondering what to do,” he said. The dental work, Wood said, “gives me a sense of purpose.”
Despite red flag conditions, Napa officials are optimistic about the Atlas fire
One of the wettest winters on record, followed by the hottest summer on record, has created possibly the worst potential for fire in Napa County that the state has seen, authorities said Saturday.
Already entrenched in a weeklong battle against a series of fires scorching wine country that have killed dozens, the potential for more running flames remains, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Mike Smith.
Experts use a scientific formula to determine the potential of a fire, called its energy release component, Smith said.
On Saturday, that potential is the worst “in recorded history,” Smith said.
Crews have not seen this amount of fuel this dry in the path of a fire in at least 26 years, he said.
“Today is going to be a much different day than you’ve experienced unless you were here” for the beginning, Tom Wright of the National Weather Service told fire crews at a Saturday morning briefing in Napa. “It’s a really critical day.”
But Napa County officials expressed some optimism at a Saturday morning news conference just an hour and a half later, saying they were confident that the Atlas fires would remain under control. Around 9 a.m., as supervisor Belia Ramos spoke, winds were light and no new evacuations were expected.
Outside of a troublesome 22- to 30-acre spot fire on the northern face of the Atlas fire, the blaze has stayed mostly within its current footprint, Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said.
Recognizing the eagerness of residents to return to their homes, authorities on Saturday pleaded for patience.
No one was going to be allowed into the evacuation areas Saturday, officials said, because Caltrans was spending the day trying to restore the roads.
The National Guard has been called in to help the California Highway Patrol block the roads, as Caltrans crews in the hills clear rocks, mud, burned trees, fallen branches and downed power lines, CHP Capt. Chris Childs said.
Locals have been urged to avoid trying to help the cleanup. The county public health director declared a local emergency to order to bring in more resources to remove toxic ash and burnt remnants of homes and cars.
Of 224 people unaccounted for in Napa County, 146 have been found safe, four have been identified as dead and 74 remain missing, county spokeswoman Molly Rattigan said.
Downed power ignites flames In Sonoma County: ‘It’s still very volatile.’
During a night of strong winds, the 46,000-acre Nuns fire in Sonoma County grew by at least 300 acres, threatening the outskirts of the city of Sonoma and the Oakmont neighborhood in Santa Rosa.
Early Saturday morning, a small fire that began when a downed power line ignited a tree branch rapidly grew into a 300-acre blaze on the southwest corner of the Nuns fire, east of Highway 12, Cal Fire officials told firefighters at a morning briefing.
“That’s what a little wind can do,” Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said in an interview. “It’s still very volatile.”
Officials issued new evacuation orders before 5 a.m. Saturday for a handful of homes on the northeastern edge of the city of Sonoma at risk from the Nuns fire.
The fire also grew to the north, reaching toward Oakmont and into Annadel State Park, McLean said Saturday morning. Evacuation orders are now in place for homes north and south of Highway 12 in that area.
A new 100-acre fire also erupted in Lake County, now called the Long fire.
Crews continued to gain ground against the 35,270-acre Tubbs fire, which is now 44% contained. The nearly 11,000-acre Pocket fire, just east of Geyserville, is 5% contained.
Firefighters will continue to face gusts of up to 40 mph until 11 a.m. Saturday along ridge lines where the Nuns fire and the Pocket fire are active, Cal Fire meteorologist Jimmy Tager said. Then winds will begin to die down to about 5 mph, continuing into the evening.
Officials lifted mandatory evacuation orders for more than 26,000 people in Santa Rosa on Saturday night, though advisories are still in place.
‘They haven’t played politics’: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom pleased with federal aid
For all the sparring between California and President Trump, there was little concern from some of the state’s politicians about receiving federal assistance for the recent wildfires.
“They haven’t played politics,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday while visiting some of Santa Rosa’s most devastated areas.
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) agreed.
“This has been extremely fast, what they’ve done,” he said.
Thompson was pleased with federal assistance for firefighting, as well as help for individuals who have lost their homes.
“It usually takes a long time,” he said.
Vice President Mike Pence said in a visit to California’s emergency management headquarters that President Trump has approved a “major disaster declaration” for California to assist with the response to the fires that have burned thousands of acres in Northern California.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is conducting damage assessments, providing aid to local agencies and offering federal funding to residents affected by the fire, the agency announced Saturday.
‘Go! Go! Go!’: Deputy’s body camera captures frantic evacuation
Body camera footage released by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office on Friday captured the frantic effort to evacuate Mark West Springs as fires raced toward the Santa Rosa neighborhood.
With heavy winds blowing and sparks flying, a sheriff’s deputy raced from house to house, pounding on doors and shouting, “Sheriff’s Office! Sheriff’s Office!”
As he drove down the mountain, his camera showed flames licking the side of the hill on the right side of the road and devouring a fence. Sparks showered the windshield, and the sky was an ominous orange.
“I’ve gotta get out of here,” he muttered, coughing. “We’re in a bad spot.”
Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said 16 deputies spent hours in the neighborhood, ushering people to safety. At one point, the deputy lifted a disabled woman into the back of his cruiser, with the help of a co-worker.
The body camera footage showed cars racing down a smoky street as a deputy shouts: “Go! Go! Go! Drive!”
Another deputy in the neighborhood got trapped by fire on the road as he tried to escort residents out of the neighborhood, Giordano said. The deputy huddled at the Mark West Lodge with 35 residents, waiting, as the fire burned around them.
“They were just lucky,” Giordano said.
Mendocino County fire evacuees seek refuge in Ukiah
Ukiah, the county seat of Mendocino County, is quickly becoming a place of refuge for those displaced by the deadly Redwood/Potter fires.
Employees at Ukiah Natural Foods Co-op make ham and turkey sandwiches every day for the volunteer fire fighters. Officials are running an evacuation center at the high school, while the fairgrounds are home to a growing number of tents and RVs.
“Wherever you go, there’s someone talking about how they had to be evacuated or lost their house,” said Lori Rosenberg, general manager at Ukiah Natural Foods Co-op.
Cassie Taaning-Trotter, 50, is staying with her mother in Ukiah after losing her own home in Redwood Valley, which is located about 10 miles north of Ukiah.
Taaning-Trotter said workers at a Ukiah sushi restaurant insisted on picking up her lunch tab and gave her a $50 gift certificate. “People are incredibly generous,” Taaning-Trotter said.
Magnus Kuhne Petersson, 34, his wife and 10-month-old baby fled their home in Redwood Valley and are housed at a friend’s residence in Ukiah.
He said he went to Mendo Baby, a Ukiah store to pick up some things, but the owner wouldn’t accept money for the baby clothes. The owner’s own house burned down, but she still insisted on giving away the items for free, he said.
“We’re very fortunate,” Kuhne Petersson said. “The community is very strong and supportive.”
Three fire victims identified in Mendocino County
Officials continued to identify victims of the fire Friday.
In Mendocino County, where at least eight people have died, officials identified three victims from the Redwood Valley: Kai Logan Shepherd, 14; Roy Howard Bowman, 87; and Irma Elsie Bowman, 88.
Kai, the 14-year-old, was found near his family’s house on the 11300 block of West Road. Authorities believe he was trying to escape the fire when he was “overtaken by flames,” according to a Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department statement.
The Bowmans, who were married, were found in their home on the 4000 block of Fisher Lake Drive. “The residence was completely destroyed by the fire,” according to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department statement.
The Redwood fire in Mendocino County has burned 34,000 acres and was 10% contained as of Friday. Between the Redwood fire and the 2,500-acre Sulphur fire, about 8,000 people have been evacuated, according to Cal Fire.
“Steep inaccessible terrain coupled with critical fuel moistures, and northwest winds will provide challenges for crews working on the fire,” a Cal Fire incident report read Thursday night.
The Northern California firestorm is straining hospitals and the healthcare system
The deadly Northern California fires — by forcing the evacuation of several hospitals and clinics and destroying the homes of many doctors and nurses — have put a strain on available medical services.
The Petaluma Health Center canceled all scheduled appointments this week to make time for people requiring urgent care. The center has treated asthmatics struggling to breathe amid some of the most unhealthy air in Bay Area history, as well as people who sprained their ankles or forgot to grab their medications as they raced from burning homes in nearby Santa Rosa, clinic chief administrative officer Pedro Toledo said.
Echoing health providers across the region, Toledo said the situation has been especially stressful because the danger isn’t gone. The many fires devastating wine country are nowhere near containment, and the clinic could be threatened if the wind changes. This week, staff members made emergency supply kits for their cars.
“A major earthquake hits, and then it’s over. … We still have no sense of when this is going to end,” Toledo said. “This thing could get worse.”
Where are all the fires in Northern California?
ICE suspends activity in Northern California fire zones
Immigration officials have suspended operations in the Northern California fire areas, authorities said Friday.
“The only time we’re going to pick someone up is in the event of a serious criminal presenting a current public safety threat,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman James Schwab said Friday.
He did not say how long the suspension would last.
Immigration enforcement will not detain anyone from evacuation sites, assistance shelters or food banks in the region, Schwab said.
Wildfire destroys home of ‘Peanuts’ creator Charles Schulz
The home of “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz burned to the ground in the deadly California wildfires but his widow escaped, her stepson said Thursday.
Jean Schulz, 78, evacuated before flames engulfed her hillside home Monday and is staying with a daughter, Monte Schulz said.
The Schulzes built the California split-level home in the 1970s and the cartoonist lived there until his death in 2000.
“It’s the house he died in. All of their memorabilia and everything is all gone,” Monte Schulz said.
He said he had not heard from his stepmother and learned about the disaster from his brother, Craig Schulz, who also lost his Santa Rosa home in the fire.
“The fire came by at, like, two in the morning,” Monte Schulz said. “Everything’s gone.”
Fires in the Northern California wine country have killed at least 31 people since they began Sunday.
Monte Schulz said he had not visited his stepmother’s home in recent years because he lives more than 300 miles away in Santa Barbara. He wasn’t sure what might have burned.
“Obviously stuff from my dad and their life together, all gone,” he said.
Charles Schulz usually worked at an outside studio and most of his original artwork and memorabilia are at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, which escaped the flames.
But the loss of the house itself is painful, Monte Schulz said.
“I had memories of being in that house. I never lived there but I visited all the time,” he said. “That time of our lives is now completely erased.”
Charles Schulz had long ties to Santa Rosa and to Sonoma County. He and his first wife, Joyce, built a home in the city of Sebastopol in 1958.
The airport in Santa Rosa is officially titled the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport and features bronze sculptures of the Peanuts characters. Its logo is Snoopy flying on top of his doghouse.
The Tubbs fire is now one of the five deadliest in California history
The death toll from the Tubbs fire in Napa and Sonoma counties rose to 15 late Thursday, making it one of the five deadliest wildfires in California history.
Two other wildfires, including the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego, each claimed the lives of 15 people.
Here’s a look at the deadliest blazes in state history in addition to the Tubbs fire:
- The Griffith Park fire burned only 47 acres in October 1933, but took 29 lives.
- The Oakland Hills fire killed 25 people in October 1991. The fire burned 1,600 acres and destroyed 2,900 structures.
- The Cedar fire in San Diego scorched 273,246 acres in October 2003 and claimed the lives of 15 people.
- The Rattlesnake fire in Glenn County in July 1953 burned 1,340 acres and killed 15 people.
More people turn to homeless shelters for relief from smoky conditions outside
Homeless shelters in Napa are seeing more requests from individuals and families who live on the streets and want refuge from the smoky conditions.
Napa’s Hope Center saw about a 30% rise in clients this week, said Eric Medina, who works at a nonprofit that helps run the shelter.
“Some of them have respiratory issues or just general health problems. They just want to get away from the smoke,” Medina said.
Maricela Pelayo, a shelter coordinator at Samaritan Family Center, said she got a call this week from a homeless family who had been living in a tent in a Napa park. She directed them to another shelter because Samaritan Family Center is at capacity.
Pelayo said she has discussed the fires with families already staying at the center, but she said they were largely nonchalant about the blazes.
“These families are already in survival mode, so for them this is nothing new,” Pelayo said. “They already don’t have a home to go to.”
Scenes from the battle against the flames along Highway 29 north of Calistoga
Recovery crews begin search for bodies in wake of Sonoma County fires
Recovery crews in Sonoma County have begun the grim task of searching for bodies in the ashes of neighborhoods that were devastated by wildfires.
Sheriff Rob Giordano on Thursday announced the county’s 14th death (bringing the Northern California fires death toll up to 24) and said at a morning briefing that law enforcement is “moving into a recovery phase” in the aftermath of the Tubbs fire in the Santa Rosa area, which he called “an active disaster.”
The searches can take hours and identification will be difficult, Giordano said.
“So far in the recoveries we have found bodies that were almost completely intact and bodies that were nothing more than ash and bone,” he said.
Sometimes, he said, the only way to identify someone is through a medical device, such as a metal hip replacement, that has an ID number.
“We will do everything in our power to locate all the missing persons, and I promise you we will handle the remains with care and get them returned to their loved ones,” Giordano said.
Asked whether he expected the death toll to rise, Giordano said, “I’d be unrealistic if I didn’t.”
Giordano said law enforcement personnel are working through missing-persons reports, trying to reach people by phone, with alternate addresses or through family members. When that fails, he said, they conduct targeted searches of the homes of the missing.
As of Thursday morning, Sonoma County had received 900 missing-persons reports, and had found 437 people safe.
“We have teams of people who are going out searching for a very specific person ... to a very specific place. That’s how the majority of recoveries have been made so far,” Giordano said.
Starting Thursday, three search-and-rescue teams of mostly civilian volunteers from Alameda, Monterey, and Sonoma counties will be going out with cadaver dogs to some of the hardest-hit areas where it is “probable” that a missing person may be found, sheriff’s department officials said.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Shawn Murphy confirmed in an interview after the briefing that the department is sending teams to the Kenwood and Mark West Springs Road areas, but said searchers were not yet going to the Journey’s End mobile home park, which was almost completely razed and where at least one death has been reported.
Murphy said he does expect to conduct searches there eventually, once the teams have more information.
Winds may still stoke fires Thursday, Cal Fire says
In Northern California, 17 fires have burned more than 180,000 acres and destroyed at least 3,500 homes.
Winds were not as strong as officials feared Wednesday night, but there’s still a risk that they could kick up and fan new fires, officials said Thursday.
Although the Tubbs fire spared an evacuated Calistoga on Wednesday night, the town is still an area of concern for officials, Williams said.
Winds on Thursday night may reach 10 to 20 mph and officials fear stronger seasonal winds over the weekend, Cal Fire spokeswoman Heather Williams said.
“The winds did calm down last night and they’re calm right now,” Williams said. “The red flag warnings are in effect until tonight, which means there are the potential for 10- to 20-mph winds.”
Red flag warnings were in place for Thursday night in large parts of the area affected by fires, including pockets of the Sacramento Valley, and parts of Napa County that include St. Helena and Yountville, Williams said.
The Mendocino Lake Complex, which includes the Redwood and Sulphur fires, reached 32,500 acres by Thursday, she said. The larger, 29,500-acre Redwood fire is 5% contained and the Sulphur fire is 40% contained, Williams said.
“They do have structures that have been destroyed, a couple hundred residential structures and nearly 100 outbuildings,” Williams said.
The area saw mandatory evacuations Monday night in Potter Valley.
The 43,000-acre Atlas fire, which began in Napa and moved into Solano County, has put the Green Valley area in some danger, she said. That area had mandatory evacuations earlier in the week.
Overall, there have been about 20,000 mandatory evacuations throughout Northern California. Officials estimate that 50,000 people, including those who evacuated voluntarily, actually left their homes because of the fires.
A ghost town in Calistoga
The town of Calistoga is empty.
Motorcycle cops wearing masks are circling the deserted streets. Everything is closed in the downtown area -- the art galleries, wine tasting rooms, cafes. The thick smoke hangs like fog. Roads leading into town are closed.
Ten miles away at Napa Valley College, a Red Cross shelter had only 35 people through Tuesday night.
Then early Wednesday morning, hundreds evacuated early when police knocked on their doors and woke them up, demanding they leave their homes. Napa Valley College swelled with evacuees.
There were 683 people in the shelter at one point, and 386 by the last count Thursday morning. The parking lot was filled with cars, and cots were laid out in the cafeteria and gymnasium.
On Thursday morning the air outside the shelter was smoky, and some volunteers were shuttling back and forth with masks.
Yury Kopansky, 66, a retired software engineer, said he only had five minutes to grab a few things and get dressed. He’s eager to go home. “I don’t think it was necessary,” he said about the evacuation.
David Sutidze, 55, evacuated with his mother-in-law. They had packed a bag two days before the evacuation, and were thinking about unpacking when police came by their house and told them to clear out.
Sutidze and his mother-in-law slept in their sedan with their two dogs, because dogs aren’t allowed in the shelter, he said. A neighbor remained behind and has been sending updates.
“He said everything is fine,” Sutidze said.
Neither snow nor rain nor wildfire’s devastation stops this U.S. Postal Service worker
Douglas Thron, an Oakland-based drone cinematographer, has photographed California wildfires and their aftermath for decades.
But even he was surprised when he captured a U.S. Postal Service truck driving through Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood. The driver could be seen Tuesday dutifully opening mailboxes in front of destroyed homes.
At first, Thron thought the driver was just pulling over to take a cellphone photo.
“But then I got a little closer and saw he was delivering mail. He delivered to half a dozen houses or what used to be a house,” he said.
At one point, Thron said the postal worker, who wore a face mask, waved to him.
“It was surreal-looking,” Thron said of the scene in Coffey Park, one of the areas believed to be hardest hit by the Tubbs fire. “It looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off.”
Postal Service San Francisco District Manager Noemi Luna said in a statement that the work of the postal worker “is an example of the longstanding relationship that has been established between our carriers and their customers based on trust.”
“The carrier in question was honoring a request by a few customers who were being let back in the fire zone to retrieve personal items. A few customers asked the carrier to leave their mail if the mailbox was still standing because they could not get to the annex to retrieve it.”
All evacuations lifted as firefighters work toward containment of Anaheim Hills blaze
After burning 9,200 acres, Cal Fire reported that the Anaheim Hills fire was 60% contained as of Thursday morning.
All evacuation orders have been lifted. The fire destroyed 23 structures and damaged 36 others.
There still were some road closures Thursday morning: Santa Ana Canyon Road between Woodcrest and Gypsum Canyon roads, as well as parts of the 241 toll road.
‘It’s time to finish this thing,’ Santa Rosa fire chief says
Despite continuing red flag conditions, forecasts called for cooler daytime temperatures and relatively light winds Thursday. Fire authorities were predicting a generally productive day on the fire lines in and around the devastated resort communities of Sonoma and Napa counties’ wine country.
As of Thursday morning, the Tubbs fire had charred 34,200 acres and was 10% contained, Cal Fire spokesman Richard Cordova said.
“We need to hit this thing hard and get it done,” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tom Gossner told hundreds of firefighters gathered at dawn in a barn at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds. “It’s time to finish this thing.”
There was more good news: Predicted winds never materialized last night in the vicinity of Calistoga, where mandatory evacuation orders had forced 5,000 residents from their homes Wednesday afternoon.
Throughout the region, major highways and country lanes were packed with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. trucks as the company aggressively worked to restore communications by repairing downed power lines and replacing destroyed telephone poles.
Overnight winds were milder than expected, keeping Atlas fire’s growth to a minimum
The 43,000-acre Atlas fire had only moderate growth overnight thanks in part to winds that were milder than expected Wednesday night. They pushed the fire mostly to the north and east, good news for Napa residents who were warned Wednesday afternoon to be prepared to leave the eastern sections of town closest to the fire.
The weaker winds also aided firefighters on the Partrick fire, but the danger of it pushing into Sonoma and Vineburg remained Thursday.
Firefighters were warned that critical “red flag” conditions remain, with strong winds, low humidity and “extremely receptive fuels,” according to Thursday morning’s Cal Fire incident management plan for the Atlas and neighboring fires.
Forecasted gusts of up to 40 mph are expected to ease Thursday afternoon, diminishing the risk of a runaway fire line.
The latest Cal Fire maps show some small containment lines and completed bulldozer breaks at key locations in the wine country fires.
The Atlas fire stretches from Lake Berryessa in the north to the southern flank of Napa, but a control line has been established across the bottom of Atlas Peak Road, near where firefighters first engaged the now-sprawling ridge fire Sunday night.
The goal is to keep the fire north of Jameson Canyon and east of Highway 29, the critical north/south road that bisects Napa and is a key evacuation route for the populous area.
Some fire engines and their crews continue to work 12-hour shifts.
‘Absolutely devastated’ daughter says her mother, 69, died in Santa Rosa firestorm
A 69-year-old woman was among the 23 people known dead in the firestorm that continues to rage across Northern California, her daughter confirmed on Facebook late Wednesday.
Linda Tunis’ remains were found at her home in Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa, according to her daughter Jessica Tunis.
“I have been a mess, absolutely devastated,” Jessica Tunis wrote on Facebook. “Hug and kiss your loved ones extra hard tonight.”
Earlier, Jessica Tunis has used the social media platform to try to find her mother, asking users if they knew whether the park was evacuated before it burned down and posting a missing-person flyer.
The pair had last spoken early Monday.
Linda Tunis called her daughter from her burning home and said, “I’m going to die” before the phone went dead, the Associated Press reported.
“May she rest in peace, my sweet Momma,” Jessica Tunis wrote.
Evacuation shelters will not ask immigration status, Sonoma County sheriff says
Shelters opened for fire evacuees in Sonoma County will not ask anyone’s immigration status, Sheriff Rob Giordano said Wednesday night.
“There’s a rumor out there that people are checking immigration status in shelters and that is not true,” he told reporters at a news briefing.
“Immigration status will never be asked of you.”
Red-flag warning issued as wildfires rage across Northern California
A red-flag warning took effect Wednesday evening in the Bay Area as more than a dozen wildfires continued to spread throughout the region.
Weather officials expect strong winds, with gusts as high as 50 mph. With dry fuels and low humidity, the fires have the potential to spread quickly, according to the National Weather Service.
The warning took effect at 5 p.m. in the North Bay hills and will take effect at 11 p.m. in the East Bay hills, Santa Cruz Mountains and the mountains in Monterey and San Benito counties.
“It’s a good heads-up to all the firefighters and emergency management that the conditions are going to be pretty bad in terms of the fire behaviors,” said Will Pi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “We’re expecting the strongest winds to be tonight and tomorrow morning.”
The red-flag warning was issued through 5 p.m. Thursday.
“Outdoor burning is NOT recommended,” the service said on social media.
Armed with goggles, heavy gloves and a respirator, Calistoga man says, ‘I’m not leaving’
Calistoga resident Dennis DeVilbiss had his mind made up.
“I’m not leaving,” the former police officer and firefighter said.
Standing on the wooden front porch of his cul-de-sac home on the south end of the resort town as smoke wafted over nearby forests, the 60-year-old said: “Why should I? I’m in a good spot. I’m monitoring all the radio bands. I just put a sprinkler on my roof. Oh, and I’ve got goggles, heavy gloves and a respirator.”
His confidence befit the German translation of his last name: “Devil Biter.”
He paused, and added with a smile: “I’m not stupid. If it’s time to run, I’ll run like hell.”
His partner, DJ Marrs Smith, a former firefighter herself, was not so sure.
Wrapped in a bathrobe with bright leopard spots and wearing a face mask to filter out smoke, she said: “I’m not sure what I am going to do. My friends are begging me to leave.”
Cause of raging Northern California fires remains under investigation, officials say
A Pacific Gas and Electric spokesman said Wednesday that it’s too early to know if the utility’s power lines or transformers sparked any of the fires raging in Sonoma and Napa counties.
The utility’s priority right now is restoring electricity, said Jason King, spokesman for the San Francisco-based utility.
At least 40,000 customers are without power in the Santa Rosa area, he said.
Strong winds late Sunday and early Monday affected the utility’s electrical lines across the North Bay, the company said in a statement.
“In some cases we have found instances of wires down, broken poles and impacted infrastructure. Where those have occurred, we have reported them to our state utility regulator and Cal Fire,” the statement read.
Any electrical facilities in Sonoma County are owned by the utility, unless the facilities are on private property, King said.
Sonoma County spokeswoman Hannah Euser said she had no information about damage to any PG&E’s infrastructure.
Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said power lines, campfires and equipment use are common causes of fires, but investigators don’t know what sparked the blazes burning throughout Northern California.
“We have investigators spread out across all the fires,” Berlant said, adding that such investigations take at least several days.
All of Calistoga is now under mandatory evacuation
As wildfires continued to rage across Napa County on Wednesday afternoon, authorities issued new evacuation orders.
All of Calistoga is now under mandatory evacuation.
“Winds have shifted out of the northeast,” said Sgt. Scott Fleming of the St. Helena Police Department. “Our goal is to have all 5,000 residents out by 5 p.m.”
Officials advised residents to leave the city via State Route 29 south, or head south on the Silverado Trail to Zinfandel Lane, then head west to the 29.
A shelter is open at American Canyon High School at 3000 Newell Drive in American Canyon.
Sonoma County evacuees will no longer be allowed to visit homes for medicine, urgent items, sheriff says
Sonoma County authorities will no longer escort evacuees back into homes to grab essential items, County Sheriff Robert Giordano announced Wednesday afternoon.
“For a short time we were trying to let people back into their houses to get medications and urgent things,” Giordano said during a press conference Wednesday at the Sonoma County sheriff’s headquarters. “We cannot do that any more because of fire safety issues.”
People who have been asked to leave should stay away from evacuation areas and shouldn’t plan to return to their homes until after Monday, he said.
“This is a big event and we have a lot of work to do still,” Giordano said. “I would encourage people to find places to stay.”
Officials are also trying to upgrade Nixle so that people will get phone calls to their landlines when alerts are pushed out through the online notification system, Giordano said.
“We’re trying to upgrade Nixle right now.… We can upgrade Nixle to a level where it can also dial landlines in a geographical area,” he said.
He did not know how long that would take.
Authorities are still trying to find hundreds of missing people, and are “starting very limited searches right now in some of the cold areas,” he said.
Another 350 National Guard personnel are on the way to help with efforts, Giordano said.
Fires resources have included 73 helicopters, 30 air tankers and 550 fire engines
State and federal officials portrayed an all-out effort to fend off California’s devastating wildfires on Wednesday.
“It’s an extremely stressful and challenging time,” said Office of Emergency Services director Mark Ghilarducci. “We are all hands on deck.”
The response involves 73 helicopters, 30 air tankers and 550 fire engines. The state also has requested 154 additional engines from the federal government and 170 from nearby states, officials said during a news conference at a state emergency operations center outside Sacramento.
“These are going to be very unpredictable fires for the next several days,” Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said.
Gov. Jerry Brown warned that recovery would be expensive and the state should brace for more dangerous fires.
“That’s the way it is with a warming climate and dry weather and reducing moisture,” Brown said. “These kind of catastrophes have happened, they’ll continue to happen, and we have to be prepared and do everything we can to mitigate.”
The situation remains dangerous, officials said.
“We’re not going to be out of the woods for a great many days to come,” Pimlott said. The state is still feeling the effects of the drought despite a recent wet winter, and there’s “explosive vegetation” fueling the blazes.
Volatile wind gusts push Atlas fire closer to Fairfield, triggering school closures
Another Northern California city is on edge as strong and erratic winds continued to push the damaging wine country fires -- which have already killed at least 21 people and burned more than 160,000 acres -- in new directions Wednesday.
The immense and growing Atlas fire, which began burning in Napa County, doubled in size overnight and the flames are now moving south toward Fairfield, a North Bay Area city along Interstate 80.
Authorities began evacuating the Green Valley area just outside the city and issued an advisory evacuation order for another neighborhood, warning residents to be ready to evacuate as forecasts predicted “volatile and gusty” winds in the area, local police said in an alert.
Three school districts in the area -- with a total enrollment of about 81,000 students -- shut down classes for the rest of the week as thick smoke enveloped the area.
Many people in the city are anxious.
Jennifer Leonard, a spokeswoman for the Vacaville School District north of Fairfield, said students and district staffers have friends or family in the area who have lost homes or loved ones in the fire.
“This morning it felt like a war zone, yesterday evening you could stare straight at the sun, it was just this purple circle in the sky,” she said. “Ash was falling from the sky.”
“It is a heavy and ominous reminder of this tragedy that is going on just over the hill,” she said,”It is a just a very solemn day for sure.”
Where people have died because of Northern California fires this week
So far, 21 fire-related deaths have been confirmed in Northern California as of noon Thursday, according to Cal Fire spokeswoman Heather Williams:
- 11 people died in Sonoma County
- 6 people died in Mendocino County
- 2 people died in Yuba County
- 2 people died in Napa County
The 28,000-acre Tubbs fire accounted for the 11 Sonoma County deaths, making it the sixth-deadliest fire in California history, Williams said.
Only two victims have been identified. Charles Rippey, 100, and his wife, Sara Rippey, 98, died when their Napa home was consumed by the Atlas fire.
Sonoma County sheriff expects the death toll to increase in the raging wildfires
Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said Wednesday morning that emergency crews continued to evacuate neighborhoods near Santa Rosa through the night because of concerns that strong winds forecast for later in the day would kick up the deadly wildfires that have been burning since Sunday.
The sheriff urged all residents who receive notices of a possible evacuation of their neighborhood to leave the area as soon as possible and not wait for a final order to flee.
“This is a very serious event,” Giordano said at a news conference at the sheriff’s department headquarters.
The sheriff said there have been 11 confirmed fire-related deaths in the county, a number he expects to increase when emergency crews are finally able to search the hundreds of homes that have been reduced to ashes in Santa Rosa and outlying areas. The identities of those killed have not been released.
A team of detectives continues to track down the whereabouts of the 670 people who have been reported missing, and have already found 110 to be safe, he said.
The task has been complicated by the loss of 73 cellphone towers in burn areas, which has made it difficult for friends and family members to find their loved ones, the sheriff said. Still, he said he expects most of the people reported missing to be found safely.
Giordano said Sonoma County officials did send out warnings to residents as the fire approached Sunday. But he added that it’s difficult to assess how effective that alert system was during the rapidly moving fire.
Residents have to register to receive emergency warnings about fire, floods and other threats from the county’s SoCoAlert system. Residents can receive warnings via their home and work phones and their cellphones, by text message and by email.
“The fire was in the middle of the night,” the sheriff said. “I don’t know how effective that was. It’s going to take a long time until we understand that.”
Giordano said law enforcement officials did arrest three people they suspected were looting over the last two days.
Northern California firefighters ‘pushing it to the limits’ as turbulent winds feed fires
Crew exhaustion, limited resources and turbulent winds complicated the battle against multiple wine country wildfires Wednesday, California fire officials said.
“There’s no doubt there’s extreme fatigue,” said Cal Fire’s deputy incident commander in Napa, Barry Biermann. “They are pushing it to the limits. Everyone is.”
Napa County’s Atlas fire has nearly doubled in size to 46,000 acres, whereas the devastating Tubbs fire reversed direction and now threatens Calistoga, also in Napa County. The fire has also caused widespread devastation in Sonoma County, where it ran rampant through Santa Rosa.
Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said Cal Fire commanders decided in the middle of the night to evacuate nearly half of Calistoga’s homes.
By 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dillon and town officials along with police crews were walking house to house in the thick smoke, knocking on doors and telling occupants to leave.
“I was stunned to hear Cal Fire was recommending a massive, for Calistoga, evacuation,” Dillon said. “When we went out to talk, people were already leaving. People were alert to the situation.”
For more than two days, some 500 firefighters have been working extended shifts to rescue trapped residents, save homes, and get a start on containing the sprawling fires.
“We are stretching them shift after shift. We are trying to get them rest so they can reengage fresh,” Biermann said. “They are being pushed to limits that have not normally been pushed due to all these life safety issues and rescues.”
Crews that had been dispatched to other fires in the state are due to arrive Wednesday, bringing the total personnel fighting the fires to 800, Biermann said.
“It wasn’t that people weren’t giving us stuff. It was just there were so many different incidents going on,” Biermann said. “Southern California had a very significant fire. They had wind events. There were their own issues to deal with. And as fires become more contained as resources become available off other incidents, they go to the next need, and that’s what we’re starting to see.”
The weather is another challenge. Low humidity and gusting winds are creating prime conditions for explosive fire growth. Humidity levels are falling to 15% or lower and 10 to 30 mph winds are expected to gust much higher. Woodland fuels are at near or historically low moisture levels.
“When the wind and weather changes like it is doing, it is extremely difficult. This fire is extremely dangerous. We had a very challenging time on our fires yesterday because of the wind and fire growth, getting our aircraft in, because it was so turbulent, visibility was so terrible,” Biermann said.
“All areas of all fires will be a concern today.”
Winds push Tubbs fire north toward Calistoga and Middletown
As the deadly Tubbs fire pushed north overnight, Napa County officials went door-to-door asking residents of some 2,000 Calistoga households to leave.
The rest of the Napa County town remained under advisory evacuation orders Wednesday morning.
About 80 residents of the Veterans Home of California near Yountsville were moved because of respiratory problems. Some were taken to Travis Air Force Base and others to medical facilities.
Power was restored to parts of Napa, but cell coverage remained spotty.
To the north, the Lake County Sheriff’s Department has issued an advisory evacuation order for residents of Middletown, which was heavily damaged and rebuilt just two years ago in the Valley fire.
This threat comes also comes from the Tubbs fire to the south, which winds drove into Santa Rosa.
Now the weather has turned and Middletown, with limited access roads already choked by fires, could again be in harm’s way.
Northern California fires, by the numbers
The latest numbers from Cal Fire show that the biggest Northern California fires have reached 28,000 and 26,000 acres, respectively.
The Tubbs fire has no containment, and the Atlas Peak fire is about 3% contained as of Tuesday night, officials said.
‘We are facing some pretty significant monsters’: Firefighters hear from leaders
Cal Fire operations chief Steve Crawford set an ominous tone for firefighters combating the Tubbs fire during a strategy briefing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Wednesday morning.
“A wind shift is coming, so don’t let your guard down today. It won’t be as strong as when this thing started, but be ready for it,” Crawford said.
Cal Fire incident commander Bret Couvea was more blunt: “We are facing some pretty significant monsters.”
Mindful that many firefighters have been serving double shifts, Couvea sought to lift their spirits. “Don’t let things that have occurred in this incident get you down,” he said.
The morning briefings are routinely held at 7 a.m. in a large barn where about 200 fire commanders, law enforcement officers — even postal office law enforcement officials — gather shoulder to shoulder to hear from top officials before setting out to the fire lines.
The focus of this briefing was on the 28,000-acre Tubbs fire affecting Napa and Sonoma counties, and the 1,800-acre Pocket fire in Sonoma County.
During the daytime, the winds will be light, less than 5 mph from the north in the morning, increasing to 15 mph in the afternoon in the valleys, officials told firefighters at the briefing.
Authorities also reminded firefighters that with the return of the winds, there is a danger of reviving embers and sending them flying into green areas that haven’t burned.
Firefighters will take advantage of a lull in the winds early Wednesday to attack hot spots and put out as many embers as possible.
At night, though, “winds will be 25-30 miles per hour after 2 a.m. These strong winds have the potential to push the fire south back towards Calistoga and Santa Rosa, especially where the fire was active yesterday [Tuesday] on the north side,” according to the weather forecast that firefighters received Wednesday.
Wildfire recovery funds included in $36.5-billion bill approved by House panel
The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved a bill to provide $36.5 billion in emergency funding for hurricane and wildfire relief and recovery.
The legislation includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund, $576.5 million for wildfire efforts, and $16 billion for debt relief for the National Flood Insurance Program, which now needs additional funds to make insurance claims payments to individuals, according to a release from the committee.
The bill includes a provision for the Disaster Nutrition Assistance Program to enable low-income residents in Puerto Rico to receive the same emergency nutrition assistance that other hurricane-affected states already receive.
“These funds are urgently needed to get resources to families and communities that are still suffering,” Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said in the statement. “This legislation will continue immediate relief efforts, and help jump-start the rebuilding process.”
Most evacuations lifted in Anaheim Hills fire
The Canyon 2 fire has scorched 8,000 acres in the Anaheim Hills and was 45% contained as of Wednesday morning, authorities said.
Most evacuation orders have been lifted and all residents should be able to return to their homes by late Wednesday, said Orange County Fire Authority spokesman Larry Kurtz.
Still, 1,600 personnel are on site fighting the blaze, focusing on hard-to-reach areas in the Cleveland National Forest on the fire’s eastern flank, Kurtz said.
“The big problem out there is just access,” Kurtz said. “Crews have a hard time getting to the perimeter to the fire because ...there’s no roads. It’s just wilderness.”
Crews have only completed about a fourth of damage assessment in the area, but so far 15 structures have been destroyed and another 12 damaged, according to a news release.
Officials expect the fire to be completely contained by Saturday, according to the release.
Cooler temperatures overnight helped calm the fire and on-shore winds bringing the return of the marine layer should help more, the release read.
As desperate calls poured in, an emergency alert system failed many
The distress calls crackled over the Napa County sheriff’s dispatch radio in a rapid staccato late Sunday as flames sped toward residents on Atlas Peak Road.
“Parents trapped in garage,” an officer called in to the central dispatcher. Then: “The fire is moving quickly through here.”
Two minutes later, the dispatcher sent someone to another house on the same road: “Two people trapped.”
A minute passed, then a call to still another house: “An elderly lady trapped.”
The dispatcher sent out an all-points request to send “any units in the area,” then made a chilling plea: “Two people called, advising their house is on fire, and they need help evacuating.”
Over the radio, officers in the field reported propane tanks exploding throughout the neighborhood, which would soon lay in ruins.
The dispatch calls, which began pouring out after 10:30 p.m., less than an hour after the fire was first reported, provide a harrowing narrative of the frantic, confusing efforts to rescue people from the Atlas Peak fire, which by Tuesday had burned 25,000 acres and destroyed more than 100 structures.
On Tuesday, Napa County officials confirmed the identity of an elderly couple who died in their home in the neighborhood: World War II veteran Charles Rippey, 100, and his wife, Sara, 98. They had just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary.
In what has been called one of the worst firestorms in state history, at least 1,500 homes, businesses and other structures have been destroyed in 16 fires in Northern California in recent days.
At least 17 people, including the Rippeys, have died in the fires.
In Napa County — where at least three major wildfires, the Atlas Peak, Tubbs and 1,000-acre Partrick fire burned — the chaos was accentuated by a problematic alert system. Residents reported difficulties receiving fire alerts, an issue possibly caused by fire damage to cellphone towers, officials said Tuesday.
“We are well aware that there are challenges,” said Kristi Jourdan, a county spokeswoman. “It’s been a challenge to get information to folks at times using Nixle. I know some folks have had problems receiving text messages.”
Nixle is a text and email alert system used by public safety agencies, schools and other entities.