Northern California Under Siege in State's Deadliest Week of Fires

The blazes have killed 37, destroyed more than 3,500 homes and businesses, scorched more than 345 square miles and forced at least 20,000 people to evacuate since Sunday

What to Know

  • At least 36 people killed by fires burning across Northern California
  • More than 221,700 acres scorched by growing wildfires
  • 3,500 homes and businesses gutted

People are trying to find lost loved ones, sift through the remains of lost homes and count, identify and mourn the dozens of dead — all while the unprecedented fires in California's wine country rage on.

The communities of the North Bay were facing another day under siege Friday, despite being driven to exhaustion by evacuations, destruction and danger amid the deadliest week of wildfires the state has ever seen.

It wears you out,” said winemaker Kristin Belair, who was driving back from Lake Tahoe to her as-yet-unburnt home in Napa. “Anybody who’s been in a natural disaster can tell you that it goes on and on. I think you just kind of do hour by hour almost.”

Bodycam footage from a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy shows him rescuing people from the fire (Warning: Strong language).

Seventeen large fires have burned more than 221,000 acres, or 345 square miles, officials said Friday. They noted "good news" that three smaller fires have been contained and that there was progress on containment of the others. All but eight of 77 cell towers knocked out of service have been restored. 

But Mark S. Ghilarducci, director of the state's Office of Emergency Services, cautioned that, "We're not out of this emergency. Not even close." 

The death toll has climbed to an unprecedented 36 and was expected to keep rising. Individual fires, including the Oakland Hills blaze of 1991, have killed more people than any one of the current fires, but no collection of simultaneous fires in California has ever led to so many deaths, authorities said. 

Of those who perished in the calamitous fires, 19 lived in Sonoma County, nine in Mendocino County, six in Napa County and four in Yuba County.

Hundreds more are injured or missing.

Multiple wildfires are continuing their ruinous march across wine country as day four dawns. Here’s a harrowing view of flames shooting into the air as the 42,000-acre-plus Atlas Fire grows in Napa and Solano counties.

“We had series of statewide fires in 2003, 2007, 2008 that didn’t have anything close to this death count,” said Daniel Berlant, a deputy director with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, along with U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, will visit Sonoma County on Saturday afternoon. The governor has declared a state of emergency for Solano, Napa, Sonoma, Yuba, Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada and Orange counties due to the devastating wildfires burning across California.

According to Cal Fire on Friday, the Atlas Fire has burned 48,228 acres in Napa and Solano counties and is 45 percent contained; the Tubbs Fire has scorched 35,270 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties and is 44 percent contained; the Nuns Fire has burned 46,104 acres in Sonoma County and is 10 percent contained; the Partrick-Carneros Fire in Napa County has charred 12,379 acres and is 18 percent contained; the Pocket Fire has burned 10,996 acres in Sonoma County and is 5 percent contained; and the Pressley Fire has torched 473 acres in Sonoma County and is 10 percent contained.

Flames have raced across the wine-growing region and the scenic coastal area of Mendocino farther north, leveling whole neighborhoods and leaving only brick chimneys and charred appliances to mark where homes once stood.

The Redwood/Potter Fire burning in Mendocino County has torn through 34,000 acres and is 20 percent contained; the Sulphur Fire has torched 2,500 acres in Lake County and is 60 percent contained; and the Cascade Fire in Yuba County has burned 10,120 acres and is 75 percent contained, officials said.

Fires have destroyed more than 3,500 homes and businesses, scorched in excess of 170,000 acres — or roughly 265 square miles — and forced at least 20,000 people to evacuate since Sunday.

Real recovery efforts will have to wait for firefighters to contain wildfires spanning an area the size of New York City.

Officials called for more evacuations Friday; an evacuation advisory was issued for a part of Napa County home to world famous wineries, including the Robert Mondavi Winery, and is not far from the French Laundry, a restaurant with three Michelin stars.  

Despite the presence of flames nearby, workers at the Mondavi winery — many without masks — spent the early hours of Friday picking grapes.

Eight thousand firefighters are battling growing flames and fatigue is beginning to set in.

The Sebastopol Fire Department posted two pictures on Facebook: One showed three men resting on the ground, using rocks as pillows, and the second depicted a firefighter lying on a lounge chair in the backyard of a home that the crew had saved.

Although it’s normal for firefighters to work for 24 hours and then take the following 24 off, that hasn’t been possible when dealing with the wine country wildfires. Resources were stretched thin as the fires grew quickly – in some places into residential areas.

Some firefighters told NBC Bay Area they have been on the front lines of the Nuns Fire in Sonoma County since Sunday night. Some news reports say crews have been out in the field for 80 hours.

Although a testament to firefighters’ commitment to public service, helping them rest is a question of safety, according to Napa County fire Chief Barry Biermann. Cal Fire is bringing in reinforcements from throughout the state, as far as Nevada and Oregon, and even Canada and Australia. Thousands of additional firefighters have been deployed in the last 24 hours. 

This, while the Bay Area braces for dangerous fire conditions on Saturday. The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning from 5 p.m. Friday through 11 p.m. Saturday.

Thousands of firefighters are amongst those battling exhaustion as the blazes rage on. Cal Fire is bringing in reinforcements from throughout the state, as far as Nevada and Oregon, and even Canada and Australia. Bob Redell reports.

Meanwhile, choking smoke hangs thick in fire zones and has drifted all over the San Francisco Bay Area, where masks to filter the fumes were becoming a regular uniform and the sunsets were blood-red from the haze.

“It’s acrid now,” said Wayne Petersen in Sonoma. “I’m wearing the mask because I’ve been here two or three days now. ...  It’s starting to really affect my breathing and lungs so I’m wearing the mask. It’s helping.”

Even some members of the Oakland Raiders were wearing masks during workouts Thursday.

The fires drove hundreds of evacuees northward to beaches, some sleeping on the sand on the first night of the blazes.

Since then, authorities have brought tents and sleeping bags and opened public buildings and restaurants to house people seeking refuge in the safety and clean air of the coastal community of Bodega Bay, where temperatures drop dramatically at night.

“The kids were scared,” said Patricia Ginochio, who opened her seaside restaurant for some 300 people to sleep. “They were shivering and freezing.”

California Highway Patrol Officer Quintin Shawk took relatives and other evacuees into his home and office, as did many others.

“It’s like a refugee camp,” Shawk said.

There are 3,9000 people in evacuation centers, with shelters at 40 percent capactiy, officials said Friday.

At an earlier news conference, Napa Supervisor Belia Ramos urged people to take advantage of the county's shelters, without fear of recrimination from immigration officials.

“We are a welcoming community here in Napa County and that cannot be more true right now – regardless of race, regardless of immigration status, regardless of age, sex, creed, sexual orientation, religion," she said. "You are welcome in our shelters. We want you to come in.

"We do not want anyone sleeping in their cars; we do not want anyone in harm’s way; we do not want you to fear leaving your home because you do not have a place to stay."

To further her point, Ramos also read a statement from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which said in part: “In consideration of these distressing circumstances, ICE will continue to suspend routine immigration enforcement operations in the areas affected by the fires in northern California, except in the event of a serious criminal presenting a public safety threat."

People need not worry about immigration raids at evacuation sites, assistance centers, shelters and food banks, according to the statement.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said officials were still investigating hundreds of reports of missing people and that recovery teams would begin conducting “targeted searches” for specific residents at their last known addresses.

“We have found bodies almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones,” said Giordano, whose office released the names of 10 of the dead, all age 57 or older, on Thursday.

Metal implants, such as artificial hips, have ID numbers that helped put names to victims, he said. Distinctive tattoos have helped identify others.

Sheriff's officials also say at least five people have been arrested for allegedly trying to steal from people’s homes. Several neighborhoods have been evacuated, making the residences easy targets. Law enforcement officers have been called in from around the Bay Area - and across California – to help patrol areas that are under curfew.

There have been 65 calls reporting looting since the fires began, police said. The Sonoma County District Attorney’s office issued a statement saying that any looters apprehended “will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

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Since igniting Sunday in spots across eight counties, the fires have transformed many neighborhoods into wastelands and an estimated 25,000 people have been forced to flee.

Fire officials were investigating whether downed power lines or other utility failures could have sparked the fires.

On Thursday, Sonoma County officials announced plans to help residents adjust property values and lower their tax bills. 

“Once the fires are out, we will be working with Cal Fire and our local fire departments to identify all properties with over $10,000 in damage," William Rousseau, the county's clerk-recorder-assessor, said in a statement.

People with impound accounts are also encouraged to inform their lenders of the state of their properties. 

The goal, according to Rousseau, is "applying large scale property tax reductions." 

Also in Sonoma County, officials have partnered with MapBox to create a real time interactive map that provides aerial images of Santa Rosa, giving residents the chance to view the status of their neighborhoods. The map can be moved to hover over specific addresses and zoomed in to see whether the structures are intact or destroyed. The large red areas on the map demarcate vegetation — not flames — officials said. 

As of Friday, 2,834 Santa Rosa homes and 400,000 square feet of businesses have been destroyed, officials say.

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Meanwhile, some lucky evacuees returned to find what they least expected.

Anna Brooner was prepared to find rubble and ashes after fleeing Santa Rosa’s devastated Coffey Park neighborhood.

Then she got a call from a friend: “You’re not going to believe this.” Her home was one of only a handful still standing.

“I swore when I left I was never coming back to this place,” Brooner said. “I feel so bad for all the other people. All of us came back thinking we had nothing left.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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