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California Wildfires Went From Small Fires To Roaring Blazes


Picture this - more than a dozen wildfires clustered together, all whipped up by this hot, dry wind.


Yeah, Rachel, that is the scene right now in northern California where at least 10 people have been killed in these fires that are ravaging the region's wine country, familiar-sounding places like Napa and Sonoma. And Sonoma is where Mickey Raymie (ph) awoke to her phone ringing.

MICKEY RAYMIE: I finally answered the phone and looked outside and right above my house was a huge orange glow, and you could feel the heat. And the smoke was intense, and I knew the fire was very close to the house, so I started screaming at the kids and got them in the truck and just started driving. As we drove out of Kenwood, there was flames on both sides of the highway. We literally had to drive through it get out.

GREENE: Not just flames, but a huge oak tree had fallen across the highway and Raymie had to drive off road to get around it, so she was relieved when she reached what she thought was safety.

RAYMIE: We made it to Santa Rosa, and we were happy. We got to grandma's house. And about an hour and a half after getting to grandma's house, all of a sudden the apartment right next door to hers was on fire, and it was raining down flames on us.

GREENE: The family left everything behind, jumped back in the car again and spent the entire night in that vehicle.

RAYMIE: We've been invited to stay at other people's houses, and I can't go in another house right now because I cannot see where the flames are and I can't go through that again. Here we have a good visual and we know when it's time to move, and so we've been staying in the truck all night long just watching and watching and watching.

GREENE: That is Mickey Raymie who twice had to escape the flames in Sonoma County. I want to turn now to the city of Santa Rosa, which is in the fire's path. The mayor, Chris Coursey, is on the line with us. Mayor, thank you for taking a few minutes. I know this must be a rough morning.

CHRIS COURSEY: Good morning, David.

GREENE: I know you're home. Where you are is just outside the evacuation zone, if I'm correct. I just wonder what it's like there this morning.

COURSEY: Well, the air still smells like a campfire is smoldering. But this morning, I can see the moon. Yesterday, I could not because of the smoke in the sky.

GREENE: I guess that's a good sign that maybe - maybe these fires are getting under control or we don't know yet.

COURSEY: You know, I have not been in touch with any of my staff yet this morning, so I don't know if anything flared up overnight.

GREENE: What - when you - when you last were able to assess the situation, how bad is the damage in your city?

COURSEY: Parts of our city have been devastated. You know, what I have got as far as information is mostly anecdotal because our fire and police personnel have been out trying to save lives. They haven't been...

GREENE: I'm sure.

COURSEY: They haven't been collecting information for me. And it's frustrating and I think it's frustrating for a lot of people not knowing exactly what the damage is. But I completely understand that their job right now is to save people's lives. And we have not been able to save everyone, as you said. Ten people in northern California have died. We've got a number of seven here in Santa Rosa, and I wouldn't be surprised if that - if that went up.

GREENE: Well, I'm so sorry for the loss in your community and I - I guess I just wonder - I mean, the striking thing is how quickly these went from small fires to these roaring blazes. I mean, did residents have any time to prepare for something like this?

COURSEY: A lot of people had no time at all. It was grab what you can and run. The wind night before last was howling at 50 to 70 miles an hour. And, you know, this was happening at 10 o'clock and midnight, which is just - I mean, first of all, we don't get wind that strong very often, but at night on a hot October night, it was just ominous. And as you probably know, the fire started in Napa County and it traveled 16 miles in an instant it seemed like. It just came roaring over the hills down through some dry brush, hit one of our most expensive housing subdivisions in the hills, went through a commercial area, burned down a couple of hotels, a couple of nice restaurants, hopped over a six-lane freeway, roared through a Kmart shopping center and then into a middle-class section, a middle-class neighborhood in the northwest side of town. It was indiscriminate and it was very, very fast.

GREENE: I guess what - what will your first priority be once, you know, the morning gets going and you're able to start, you know, reaching people and figuring out how bad this is?

COURSEY: Well, my priority as mayor is to take care of the people who live in Santa Rosa. I've got a great staff. Our police department and fire department are working really hard but so is every other department in this city. You know, we're looking at lost infrastructure, lost pavement in addition to lost lives and lost property. I mean, the devastation is unimaginable. This was a wildfire in a city, and it doesn't happen very often.

GREENE: Are people going to - going to think twice before rebuilding after going through something like this?

COURSEY: You know, that's a good question, but people rebuild in wildlands when a fire goes through, so I don't think that people will have any problem rebuilding in Santa Rosa. The problems will be financial, not worrying that this might happen again. This was a really, really unusual event.

GREENE: Chris Coursey is, the mayor of Santa Rosa, Calif., which has been hit by severe fires, including loss of life. Mayor, I just really appreciate the time and we'll hope for the best as you assess the situation and try to bring your community back.

COURSEY: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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