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'Public Calamity' As California Wildfires Leave Apocalyptic Scenes In Wine Country

Updated at 6:17 p.m. ET

At least 15 people have died in intense wildfires that have destroyed thousands of buildings in Northern California, where firefighters are battling 17 large blazes in the state's wine country, including Napa and Sonoma counties. Together, they've burned 115,000 acres, according to Cal Fire.

Nine people are confirmed dead in Sonoma, three in Mendocino County, two in Napa County and one person in Yuba County. Authorities say they expect the death toll to rise as investigators examine debris in destroyed neighborhoods in Sonoma County.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in at least eight counties, including Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino.

President Trump issued a disaster declaration for California, the White House said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has approved grants for 10 fires in California to help support local and state agencies responding to the emergencies.

Several fires spread with intense speed after being reported on Sunday. Since then, some 1,500 structures, including hundreds of homes, have been lost. At least two wineries were destroyed; others have been damaged. Napa wineries that were affected include Signorello and William Hill.

Two large fires are raging in or near Napa County: The Tubbs Fire has burned 27,000 acres as of Tuesday morning, and the Atlas Fire had burned 25,000 acres as of Monday night. Fire officials are not offering a containment estimate for those blazes. In Mendocino County, the Redwood Complex Fire west of the Mendocino National Forest consumed 21,000 acres. And to the east in Yuba County, the Cascade Fire burned 11,500 acres and was 15 percent contained on Tuesday.

In Sonoma County, the city of Santa Rosa has declared a local emergency, citing fire damage as a "public calamity." Mandatory evacuations were declared in several areas; Santa Rosa officials imposed a public curfew lasting from 6:45 p.m. to 7:15 a.m.

"Parts of our city have been devastated," Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey told NPR's David Greene early Tuesday.

Describing the howling winds that drove what had been brush fires into roaring wildfires on Sunday night, Coursey says that when evacuation orders went out, "A lot of people had no time at all. It was, 'Grab what you can and run.' "

Authorities have not yet determined the cause of the fires, although Napa County Fire Chief Barry Bierman, who was early on the scene at the Atlas Fire, said that the number of blazes concentrated in the wine country region is "unusual."

"The winds were extremely erratic, branches were blowing off trees as I was trying to make access, and so during those conditions of high winds a lot of things happen. The humidities were extremely low so it doesn't take much to start a fire. But there is nothing to indicate what the cause is; they are all being investigated right now," Bierman said at a Tuesday morning news conference.

The massive Tubbs Fire started in Napa County late Sunday before spreading into Sonoma County during the night. Coursey described its destructive path:

"It traveled 16 miles in an instant, it seemed like. It just came roaring over the hills, down through some dry brush. [It] 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. ... It was indiscriminate, and it was very, very fast."

The fire consumed the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, a longtime tourist hub. As seen in a dramatic video by member station KQED's John Sepulvado, the fire ravaged the building even as its sprinkler system kept running.

"It says something that there are not firefighters here trying to put this out," Sepulvado said. "This has essentially been abandoned and left to burn, with the hope that these embers don't spread."

Sepulvado also visited a mobile home park in Santa Rosa that was devastated by the intense fire. As he reported from the scene, the air was filled with the hissing sound of burning gas lines.

Last night, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. representative said the utility had cut gas service to some 30,000 customers in areas affected by the fires. PG&E also said on Monday that roughly 100,000 customers had no power.

Dozens of shelters have been opened to house all of those who fled the fires. As a map from member station KQED shows, a portion of those shelters are now at capacity. Officials are also calling for volunteers to help the Red Cross and other groups serving communities affected by the fire.

Plumes of thick smoke and ash from the fires have also ruined the area's air quality. At 10 a.m. local time Tuesday, the federal AIRNow map showed a large swath of Northern California with red "Unhealthy" air, meaning, as the agency says, "Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects."

In the federal Air Quality Index, two California cities — Vacaville and San Rafael — had the highest (worst) rating Tuesday, with both areas reporting AQIs of 235 or higher, giving them "Very Unhealthy" status. For reference, a "Good" rating is from 0-50 and a "Moderate" rating is from 51-100. All of the top five U.S. locations with the worst air Tuesday morning were in areas affected by California's wildfires.

The fires have been powered by blasts from strong winds. The Bay Area National Weather Service office says winds began to decrease in many North Bay areas on Monday and that the region will see lower temperatures and milder winds on Tuesday. But we'll note that the winds in Santa Rosa are still expected to reach 10 mph or higher, and they're expected to strengthen in some areas Wednesday.

Every school in Sonoma County was closed Tuesday; other areas did the same. Residents in Fountaingrove, down the road from the Kendall-Jackson Winery Estate, were told to boil water before drinking it.

People who have made it to safety are being urged to mark themselves safe, either through the Red Cross or via Facebook's crisis page.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the fires' potential paths. And along with concern over homes and property, many are also worried about animals who were left behind — including at zoos and stables.

In Santa Rosa, the Safari West conservation area issued an update on Sunday afternoon saying that its fences were still standing and that "the animals are contained and accounted for" — adding, "At no point were fences cut or Safari West animals released."

In Anaheim, where a devastating fire called Canyon Fire 2 has been burning in Orange County, member station KPCC reports, "At least 24 homes have been destroyed in Anaheim, Orange and Tustin and more have been damaged."

The Canyon Fire 2 is now 5 percent contained; it has burned some 7,500 acres, California fire officials said on Tuesday.

Fire officials said Monday night that there were reports of stables burning at Irvine Regional Park, where equestrians had reportedly rushed to save more than 100 horses on Monday.

A video posted by Country Trails & Riding School, which operates in the park, showed volunteers and workers moving horses as smoke billowed above trees in the background. While Anaheim fire officials said there was no word about the park's zoo, we take that to refer to the facility's structures: Orange County Parks said last night that the zoo animals had been evacuated.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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