Raging Inferno: Death Toll Rises As Wildfires Continue Destructive March Across Northern California

Authorities hoped cooler weather and lighter winds would help crews get a handle on the fires, which are among the deadliest in California history and were still burning completely uncontained. At least 17 people are dead.

Newly homeless residents of California wine country awoke to shattered lives Tuesday after wildfires killed at least 17 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses. 

Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said a total of 17 large fires still burning across the state charred more than 115,000 acres in just 24 hours.[[450322263, C]]

Area hospitals have reported treating more than 100 patients with fire-related injuries. As many as 2,000 homes and businesses have been destroyed, according to authorities, who warned that all those figures were expected to climb in the coming days as more information is reported.

Eleven deaths have been confirmed in Sonoma County and two in Napa County. Farther north, three people have been confirmed dead in Mendocino County and one in Lake County.

Mandatory and volunteer evacuations were widespread in Napa and Sonoma counties and stretched into Solano County late Monday night and into Tuesday. Several evacuation centers have opened for residents to take shelter.[[383833041, C]]

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma, Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada, Solano and Yuba counties due to wildfires. Vice President Mike Pence, who was visiting California, said at an event near Sacramento that the federal government stands with California as it takes on the blazes, but he made no specific promises.

Congressman Mike Thompson stressed “how serious and devastating this fire is on the people in our area.”

He said Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are “fully engaged” and the entire California delegation is pushing to get aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as well as the White House.[[450295843, C]]

President Donald Trump said he spoke Monday night with Gov. Brown to "let him know that the federal government will stand with the people of California. And we will be there for you in this time of terrible tragedy and need."

The largest of the blazes burning over a 200-mile region hit Napa and Sonoma counties, both home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. The Atlas Fire has burned 26,000 acres in Napa and Solano counties and is 3 percent contained; the Tubbs Fire has scorched 27,000 acres in Napa County and is 0 percent contained; and the Nuns Fire has burned 5,000 acres in Sonoma County and is 1 percent contained, Cal Fire said. 

The fires sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 60 miles away.[[450232813, C]]

A thick, smoky haze cloaked wine country, where neighborhoods hit by the fires were completely leveled.

One key Napa County vintner says at least five wineries in his trade group are destroyed or seriously damaged in a region synonymous with excellent food and wine.

The Napa Valley Vintners association earlier Tuesday had put the number at four. But board chairman Michael Honig said the latest count was five. He said damage was to facilities, and the group does not know about vineyards.

About 3,200 people were staying in 28 shelters across Napa and Sonoma counties.[[450133483, C]]

"I don't know how long I'm going to be here, or what's happening at home," said Santa Rosa evacuee Kathy Ruiz, who had found her way to a center at Sonoma County Fairgrounds. "That's what I'm starting to think about now, am I going to have a home to go back to?"

In the Santa Rosa suburb known as Coffey Park, house after house was gone with only brick chimneys still standing. The flames burned so hot that windows and tire rims melted off cars, leaving many parked vehicles sitting on their steel axles. The only recognizable remnants at many homes were charred washing machines and dryers.

As she approached the smoldering ruins of the Coffey Park duplex she had shared with her husband and their 6-year-old son, Robyn Pellegrini let out a cry of grief. Daniel Pellegrini held his wife before they went searching for something they could salvage for their child.

With bare hands, they sifted through the remains of the exterior wall, which had collapsed into dust inside the house and covered all the other debris in their boy's room. They found a stuffed animal — charred but still recognizable as a turtle. Robyn Pellegrini let out joyful gasps when they found pieces of his rock collection.

A young boy across the street, whose home was spared, brought over one of his own stuffed animals to share.

"You lose all your photos," said Tony Pellegrini, Daniel's father. "You feel like you lost a part of your life."

Santa Rosa, a far larger and more developed city than usually finds itself at the mercy of a wildfire, has sustained much of the damage so far. Around 175,000 residents call Santa Rosa home, including both the wine-country wealthy and the working class.

The flames were unforgiving to both groups. Hundreds of homes of all sizes were leveled by flames.

Former San Francisco Giants pitcher Noah Lowry, who now runs an outdoor sporting goods store in Santa Rosa, was forced to flee in minutes along with his wife, two daughters, and a son just over 2 weeks old.

"I can't shake hearing people scream in terror as the flames barreled down on us," Lowry said.

His family and another evacuating with them tried to take U.S. 101 to evacuate but found it blocked by flames and had to take country roads to get to the family friends who took them in.

Santa Rosa city officials on Tuesday afternoon said the Nuns Fire was rapidly approaching the Oakmont neighborhood, which was already under a mandatory evacuation order, and told residents who were still in the area to leave immediately.[[450214623, C]]

Authorities hoped cooler weather and lighter winds would help crews get a handle on 17 separate fires, which are among the deadliest in California history.

"The weather has been working in our favor, but it doesn't mean it will stay that way," said Brad Alexander, a spokesman of the governor's Office of Emergency Services.

Cal Fire urged people to refrain from flying drones because it hindered air assaults on flames. Officials also described the fire as a "life safety event," and said that crews are not yet in firefighting mode. The goal is to evacuate people and ensure their safety.

Among the dead were 100-year-old Charlie Rippey and his 98-year-old wife Sara. The pair had been married for 75 years but didn't make it out of the Silverado Golf Course house they lived in for the past 40 years.

"The caregiver called and said there's fire everywhere," Chuck Rippey, the couple’s son, said. "I said get these guys out on the street, and before she knew it, the roof was caving in very fast."

Rippey said his dad was a World War II veteran who liked playing tennis and going out to eat. But he loved his wife more than anything. Rippey said he finds peace in knowing the two were together until the very end. The Napa County coroner confirmed their deaths.

Kim Hoe, a 33-year-old tech worker from Penang, Malaysia, was staying at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, which was gutted by flames. He said the power went out around 1 a.m., and he and his colleagues started packing up when someone knocked on the door and told them to run.

"We just had to run and run. It was full of smoke. We could barely breathe," Hoe said.

NFL legend and former San Francisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott, along with other sports stars, were evacuated from a hotel in Sonoma minutes before wildfire ripped through the area, according to TMZ.

Former San Francisco Giants great Barry Bonds was also among the athletes who fled from Wine County wildfires, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Among the more prominent structures damaged in the fires were Cardinal Newman High School and the Hilton Hotel in Santa Rosa. A number of wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties also were burned.[[450174373, C]]

The destructive blazes and high winds, which fanned the flames and toppled power lines, have left tens of thousands of people across the North Bay without power, according to PG&E. Roughly 87,000 customers were without power, with the majority of them in Sonoma and Napa counties, PG&E reported at noon.

School closures in Santa Rosa were extended through Wednesday, officials said, and Napa Valley, Calistoga and St. Helena unified school districts canceled classes for the rest of the week, officials said.[[450084303, C]]

Sonoma State University canceled classes Wednesday, and Santa Rosa Junior College will remain closed through Sunday, according to the school websites. 

Santa Rosa officials also issued a curfew order for affected burn areas at 6:45 p.m. until sunrise. Evacuees are instructed not to return to their homes until evacuation orders are lifted, they said.

The wildfire ripped through the historic Stornetta Dairy off Highway 12 in Sonoma County.[[450153703, C]]

In Napa, the fire destroyed a water pump station in the Silverado Country Club area, prompting the city to issue a boil-water notice for customers on Hagen Road, Woodland Drive, Syar Drive, Holly Court and Old Coach Road. Boil water notices were also issued for some residents in the Fountain Grove area of Santa Rosa.

To the south in Orange County, more than 5,000 homes were evacuated because of a fire in the Anaheim area. The blaze had grown to nearly 10 square miles and had destroyed 24 structures.[[450341693, C]]

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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