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At least 10 dead in Northern California fires; blocks of homes destroyed in Santa Rosa

Updated: 
October 9, 2017 - 10:02pm

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — At least 10 people have died in wind-whipped blazes that spread rapidly overnight in several Northern California counties, and blocks upon blocks of homes burned to the ground in Santa Rosa.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in five California counties, where fires destroyed at least 1,500 structures and forced more than 20,000 people to evacuate their neighborhoods.

Seven people have been confirmed dead, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said Monday afternoon, while two were confirmed dead in Napa County.

Further north in Mendocino County, one person was killed and two were seriously injured when the Redwood Complex Fire rushed up 10,000 acres from Redwood Valley toward Willits, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Assistant Deputy Director Daniel Berlant said.

Fifteen fires throughout California, all but one of which are in the state’s northern half, have burned a combined 73,000 acres since Sunday evening, Berlant said. Brown issued an expanded emergency declaration Monday afternoon for Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada and Orange counties.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said numerous people have been injured and a number of residents are also missing. He also said the estimates of destroyed structures are likely very conservative. Firefighters from as far away as San Diego have been called into action.

Most of the fires started at about 10 p.m. Sunday and their causes are under investigation, officials said. Firefighters are concentrating on saving lives rather than battling the blazes, Pimlott said. He didn’t have an estimate on the number of people hurt and missing.

Overnight winds of up to 50 mph fanned fast-moving fires, but winds are dying down. “We hope that slows the forward progress of the fires,” Pimlott said.

The city of Santa Rosa has been particularly hard hit, with entire neighborhoods destroyed, its mayor reports. That fire, called the Tubbs Fire, swept through the city early Monday morning from the eastern hills near Calistoga. The Tubbs fire has grown to 25,000 acres, the city of Santa Rosa confirmed just before 1 p.m.

Multiple blocks of homes were burnt to the ground, based on an aerial photo posted this afternoon by the California Highway Patrol. It appeared to be the Coffey Park neighborhood west of Highway 101 in the north part of Santa Rosa.

“We’ve seen major devastation of several neighborhoods of Santa Rosa, both residential and commercial,” said Chris Coursey, Santa Rosa’s mayor. “The city has never seen anything like this.”

“Right now, we are busy saving lives,” the mayor said.

Numerous buildings have been destroyed and large-scale evacuation orders remain in place. The Hilton Sonoma hotel and a K-Mart were among structures that were completely engulfed, as well as a McDonald’s, according to media reports. Sonoma County officials said Monday morning that Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital and Kaiser Medical Center “are no longer operational and patients have been evacuated.”

One Santa Rosa evacuee, Nathan Azhderian, said fire officials came through his neighborhood on the west side of Highway 101 at 2 a.m. Monday, knocking on doors, and ordering people to get out. Azhderian said he found himself in a traffic jam, heading for safety. He could see fire approaching his neighborhood.

“I think it is probably gone,” he said of his house. Azhderian was volunteering Monday at an evacuation center in Sebastopol. “I’m OK. The most important thing to me is that people are safe, and most vulnerable are taken care of.”

At the Finley Park evacuation center in Santa Rosa, over 200 people were sitting in chairs and wheelchairs. Some had Red Cross blankets over their heads, trying to get some rest after a frantic night evacuating their homes.

Leo Langer, 77, said he and his wife had to flee in the middle of the night from their home in the foothills on the eastern side of Santa Rosa. He said he didn’t think their home survived, though he didn’t know for sure.

“We’re waiting for permission to go back up and see what’s left,” Langer said.

Officials said 45,000 power customers in Napa and Sonoma counties were without electricity, and cell service was down as well.

Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said more than 50 structures had been destroyed in his jurisdiction, but there were no reports of injuries or deaths, according to The Associated Press.

As a wall of flames sprinted toward his home on Highway 12 in Glen Ellen early Monday, Mike Turpin made a decision: he was going to stay and try to save his home of nine years.

“I stayed up all night fighting that fire,” he said, chuckling. “That was quite a show.”

Turpin watered the trees around his house, ripped out a dry wooden fence with his bare hands and stamped out spot fires with a shovel. Seven other homes that share a driveway with Turpin’s were destroyed. So were dozens of other houses in this picturesque part of Sonoma County, where wineries and estates line the hills east of Santa Rosa.

“Someone was looking out for me,” Turpin said.

Mass evacuations were taking place in Sonoma County, according to the county Sheriff’s Department, where flames from the Tubbs Fire have inundated Santa Rosa, Larkfield and Forestville. The fire jumped Highway 101 early Monday morning, according to the Santa Rosa Police Department.

Several properties in the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park burned down, while the luxurious Fountaingrove Inn was reportedly destroyed. Seventeen Sonoma County shelters had been established as of 7:45 a.m.

Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College were closed for the day, as were several area school districts.

The Atlas Peak Fire started just south of Lake Berryessa at around 9:50 p.m. Sunday and ran through 5,000 acres of Napa County, according to Cal Fire, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. The Patrick Fire, also in Napa County, had engulfed 3,000 acres as of 11:25 a.m.

Butte County’s LaPorte Fire, which began as the Cascade Fire in Yuba County, had scorched 7,200 acres as of 12:30 p.m. Monday. Officials had closed 33 roads as of 6:30 a.m. and set up an emergency shelter capable of hosting large animals at the Yuba-Sutter fairgrounds.

Strong northern winds spread the Cherokee Fire in Oroville from 80 to 800 acres in just two hours Sunday night, according to tweets from Cal Fire-Butte County and had reached 7,500 acres by 11:17 a.m. on Monday. Evacuation orders were issued for about five miles of roads surrounding the blaze, which began as a vegetation fire around 9:45 p.m. on Sunday.

Approximately 7,000-8,000 homes in Nevada County were being threatened in the uncontained 500-acre Lobo Fire, according to Cal Fire. The McCourtney Fire, near Grass Valley, had spread to 150 acres before forward progress was halted around 9 a.m. Monday.

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(The Bee’s Darrell Smith contributed to this report.)

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©2017 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

Visit The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) at www.sacbee.com

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PHOTOS (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): CALIF-WILDFIRES

GRAPHIC (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): 20171009 WILDFIRE

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