SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The massive, fast-moving California wildfires that have killed at least 15 people came with hardly any warning, spreading into neighborhoods when residents had gone to bed, unaware that they would have to flee for safety. Many of them, officials said, have nothing left to come back to.
Officials expect the death toll to rise and high winds in coming days could complicate efforts to contain fires that have already torched 115,000 acres of land, mostly in Northern California’s wine country. Seventeen wildfires, some fanned by up to 50 mph wind gusts whipping across parched terrain loaded with tinder, have forced about 25,000 residents to evacuate and destroyed at least 2,000 homes and commercial buildings.
“These folks have lost everything. When you look at the destruction, it’s literally like it exploded,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said at a news conference Tuesday. He added: “Some of these folks were literally just sleeping at home in bed and had no idea.”
Residents will be allowed back to their homes once authorities are sure the neighborhoods are safe, Pimlott said. But that could take days, perhaps even weeks for some.
“This is pure devastation,” he said, “and it’s going to take as a while to get out and comb through all of this.”
Sonoma County appears to have been hit the hardest, with nine casualties confirmed and about 240 people reported missing, the sheriff’s office said. As of Tuesday afternoon, 57 of those missing have been found.
In Napa County, an elderly couple died after they were unable to evacuate from their home, Sheriff John Robertson said at a news conference. Charles and Sara Rippey, ages 100 and 98, respectively, had a caretaker, but she was unable to get to the couple in time, Sgt. Mark Foster told the East Bay Times.
To the north in Mendocino County, three people were killed and four others were seriously injured, Cal Fire said. An additional death was reported in Yuba County near the Sacramento area, well outside of wine country.
Fire crews received some badly needed reprieve Tuesday, when temperatures cooled down and winds slowed to single-digit speeds, said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director for Cal Fire.
“That’s given us a good opportunity to make progress on these fires,” Berlant said. “We’re hoping to continue to see less wind and cooler temperatures. That combination is a welcome sight compared to what we dealt with just 24 hours ago.”
The improving conditions allowed fire crews to slowly — and cautiously — contain the fires, but winds are expected to pick up again. The National Weather Service is predicting winds of up 30 mph with 45 mph gusts in the North Bay area from Wednesday to Thursday.
The fires, which first whipped up Sunday night, added to what has already been a severe fire season in the West. More than 8 million acres have burned in at least four states, raising questions from across the political spectrum about the connection to climate change and forest management practices.
Vice President Pence said Tuesday that the president had approved a major disaster declaration, which would give California additional funding to respond to the wildfires. Legislation that will be considered in Congress next week includes $576 million for wildfire suppression, Pence said.
Federal funding is available to state and local governments, as well as nonprofit organizations, in Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Sonoma and Yuba counties, according to a statement from the White House.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday wrote a five-page letter to President Trump seeking federal emergency aid. A vocal critic of Trump’s politics, Brown wrote that he has “determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that an effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and affected local governments and supplemental federal assistance is necessary.”
The situations in Sonoma and Napa counties, heart of California’s wine industry, appeared dire. Two wildfires have charred a combined 52,000 acres of land between the two counties and left hundreds of thousands without power. Both have not been contained as of Tuesday afternoon, officials said.
For Sonoma County residents Daniel and Cindy Pomplun, the fire had no warning; just the sight of the flames.
The couple jumped into their pool as smoke and flames filled their home in Santa Rosa, the county’s largest city. They draped washcloths over their heads as they came up periodically for breath, their backs were to the fire that was engulfing their home and the acreage around it. Daniel Pomplun recalled the experience Tuesday as he and his wife sat in a nearby evacuation center, their face covered in blisters.
When the fire passed, they lay shivering on the hot stones of their patio, taking off items of clothing to let the heat from the stones dry them. A Sonoma County deputy sheriff later spotted them as they were walking and drove them to the evacuation center.
Elsewhere in Sonoma County, residents who remained at home outside mandatory evacuation zones dealt with suffocating smoke and fear that fires could spread in their direction. At a shelter at the Petaluma Community Center, 450 people anxious for information had taken refuge, said Drew Halter, a county recreation supervisor who’s helping to run the shelter.
“Glued to their phones. Looking to get anything, news of their homes, friends, etc. We received most of the folks initially from the North Santa Rosa area,” Halter said. “They really arrived here with whatever they could carry with them.”
The pace of the burn took firefighters by surprise: The fires torched 20,000 acres in about 12 hours Monday, which Cal Fire’s Cox called “a phenomenal rate of growth.”
As fires leapt across Santa Rosa late Sunday and early Monday, volunteer firefighter Chris Spangenberg roamed the city, taking photographs and checking on homes of friends who were messaging him on Facebook from as far away as Europe.
“It was like everything was on fire and it was so odd. I’ve been to a bunch of house fires and building fires, but you’d never have block after block after block after block,” he said. At one point, he was at a fire at Trader Joe’s and told his mother by phone, “I have buildings on fire in all four directions now.”
In Cloverdale, on the north end of the county, Patrick King, owner of a garden center, acrid smoke filled the air.
“Smells like burned stuff,” he said. “Not a happy fire smoke, not a campfire smoke smell. Like burned wires and houses.”
King said he had taken in three evacuated horses as of midday Tuesday and expected a dozen more at least.
“Instead of going into panic mode, we’re going into help mode, taking care of our citizens,” he said.
Sonoma and Napa counties, the source of some of the country’s best wines, has more than 100,000 acres of wine grapes and are home to more than 650 wineries, according to the Wine Institute. Witness accounts suggested that the damage to the wine industry, which generates more than more than $55 billion in economic activity in California — and twice as much nationally — each year, could be significant.
“It looks like a bombing run,” Joe Nielsen, the winemaker at Donelan Family Wines in Sonoma County, told SFGate. “Just chimneys and burned-out cars and cooked trees.”
Images showed one Napa winery, Signorello Estate, completely destroyed by fire.
Gerry Pasterick-Vinter, a winery owner in Healdsburg, Calif. in Sonoma County, said that most of the area’s grapes have been harvested already, including his own. But many Cabernet grapes are still on the vine, and that could be a serious problem.
Many farmers, especially those in Napa, still have grapes on the vine that need to be picked and crushed before they’re overly ripe. The problem, Pasterick-Vinter said, is that many farmers have lost their homes and are unable to think about their work until they can find accommodation for their families. Several wineries also are without power, which means harvested grapes can’t be processed.
Ken Rochioli, who owns a catering company in Healdsburg, said he knows at least 30 people who have lost their homes in the fire.
“I look through Facebook,” he said, “and it just makes me sick to my stomach.”
Donosky reported from Santa Rosa, Calif. Kerr reported from Healdsburg, Calif., and Phillips and Achenbach reported from Washington. Alissa Greenberg in Berkeley; and Kimberly Kindy, Mary Hui, Herman Wong, Scott Wilson and J. Freedom du Lac in Washington contributed to this report, which has been updated.