“We always thought the alert system would give us time, but there was no notice, no warning,” said Maureen Grinnell, 77, who lived in the hills north of Napa with her husband, Sheldon, 89, who uses a walker. “I was watching a movie with my 19-year-old granddaughter and I smelled smoke, and I looked out the window to see flames approaching.”
From that moment, they stayed with the house seven to 10 minutes, she said — just long enough to load the three of them, a dog and a handful of belongings into a car.
“By the time I started to back the car out of the garage, the house was already on fire,” Ms. Grinnell said. “I drove down the road through smoke with flames on both sides. It almost looked like the burning of Atlanta in ‘Gone With the Wind.’”
Pamela Taylor, 66, at first watched the fire from the mobile home park in Santa Rosa where she lived, thinking it was not near enough to pose a threat — and then, suddenly, it was. “A gigantic fireball jumped across the freeway to the trees around the trailer park,” she said, and within minutes, trailers and cars were ablaze, and people were fleeing.
“There was no turning the gas off. There was just running,” she said.
James Harder and his friends managed to save his business, James Cole Winery, a small-scale maker of high-priced cabernets, even as the nearby Signorello Estate winery burned. Mr. Harder said he saw a wall of flame 20 to 30 feet high descending a hillside toward his property, embers whipping toward him, and formed a bucket brigade with six other people, working through the night, scooping water from a 10,000-gallon tank meant to irrigate his vines.
“We just thought, ‘Keep working, keep working,’” he said. “We would have lost everything if not for our friends.”
All around them, in some of the most expensive real estate in the country, they could see neighbors’ houses going up in flames, their propane tanks exploding with ground-shaking force.
Next door, the gate to the Signorello property was open on Tuesday and a sign said “Open,” but no one was there. The reception area was destroyed, fires still burned from gas pipes there, and ash covered an infinity pool with a commanding view of the valley. But in the bar area, a refrigerator held a wheel of manchego cheese, beer bottles and soda cans, still intact.
How much of the season’s grape harvest was destroyed remains unclear.
Across the state, 17 large wildfires were still burning Tuesday, covering 115,000 acres, Chief Pimlott said. An unusually wet winter produced ample brush, and the state’s hottest summer on record dried it to tinder, setting the stage for a rough October, a month usually marked by dry air and high winds from the north and east.
The entire American West has experienced a particularly brutal wildfire season, even as people in the Southeast have suffered the floods and winds of hurricanes. As of Oct. 6, wildfires had raced through 8.5 million acres, well above the last decade’s average of six million per year.
Most of the current California wildfires are in the north, including a large one in Mendocino County and several others in the Sierra Nevada, the north coast and the San Joaquin Valley. But in Southern California, a fire that broke out Monday in the Anaheim Hills burned through thousands of acres and about a dozen homes, sending smoke pouring into Orange County and closing the 91 freeway, the main route into the county from the east.
The winds whipping the flames in the area north of San Francisco Bay came from the north, and thousands of firefighters labored to build fire breaks on the southern flanks of the blazes to hold them back from populated areas. Supported by aircraft dropping water and fire retardant — ranging from helicopters to a Boeing 747 tanker — fire crews used bulldozers, chain saws and shovels to clear trees and brush, hoping to create fire breaks and starve the blazes of fuel.
A thick layer of smoke shrouded the region, and the Environmental Protection Agency rated the air quality as “unhealthy,” “very unhealthy,” and even “hazardous” in places. Many of the people taken to area hospitals were treated for smoke inhalation, and people walked through their neighborhoods and evacuation centers wearing paper masks, in hopes of protecting their lungs.