10 Dead as Wildfires Ignite in California Wine Country

More than a dozen wildfires ignited and speeded on powerful winds through California wine country overnight, killing at least 10 people, destroying hundreds of homes and other structures, forcing thousands of people to flee and leaving tens of thousands of others without power, state officials said Monday.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared an emergency in eight counties, including Napa and Sonoma in the heart of wine country, as at least 15 new fires burned across the northern half of the state. The Federal Emergency Management Agency immediately agreed to the state’s request for federal funds to help fight many of the fires, the Department of Homeland Security said.

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Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said seven people had been killed there in fire-related incidents — and “that number’s going to change.” The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection confirmed that two people had been killed in Napa County and that one had been killed in Mendocino County.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, agreed Monday that other deaths were likely across the region — because the fires were moving so rapidly, authorities were “still trying to get our hands around” the full extent of the damage and casualties, he said.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said that many other people had been injured and that an undetermined number of others was missing.

Pacific Gas & Electric said more than 100,000 customers were without power late Monday afternoon, most of them in Napa and Sonoma counties. Gas service was shut off to 30,000 customers, it said. The California Highway Patrol said it had rescued 44 people by helicopter.

All of the new fires started after 10 p.m. PT (7 p.m. ET) on Sunday, Pimlott said, bringing the total spread of more than 25 fires across the northern half of California to about 73,000 acres at what he called the worst possible time.

Image: Fire at Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel

Image: Fire at Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel

Rudy Habibe of Puerto Rico and his service dog, Maximus, at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel in Santa Rosa, California, on Monday. Jeff Chiu / AP

Californians are pushing their way through a phenomenon called the Santa Ana winds — powerful systems that start inland and almost always blast a hair dryer of hot, extremely dry air across northern California and the southern California coast.

The hot, dry blasts are sometimes called los diablos, or “the devil winds,” and they often create critical fire conditions.

“Every spark is going to ignite a fire,” said Pimlott, who said that the rash of blazes “all started about 10 o’clock last night” and that “we’re continuing to get new starts.”

“Imagine a wind-whipped fire burning at explosive rates,” he said. “The planets literally aligned to have this explosive state.”

At least 1,500 homes and commercial structures were destroyed in the region in just 12 hours, authorities said. More than 20,000 people had been evacuated as of 1 p.m. PT, Pimlott said.

“Most of these fires have limited or no containment. These are rapidly moving fires,” he said. “We need every resident, every resident, to heed evacuation orders and move out.”

Marian Williams of Kenwood, in Sonoma County, told NBC Bay Area that she joined a caravan of neighbors driving through the flames before dawn as one of the fires reached the area’s vineyards.

“It was an inferno like you’ve never seen before,” Williams told the station.

Image: Fire in Glen Ellen, California

Image: Fire in Glen Ellen, California

A man rushes to save his home as an out-of-control wildfire moves through Glen Ellen, California, on Monday. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The flames in Sonoma County “came in very, very hard [with] very dry winds,” and they “drained our resources very quickly,” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said late Monday afternoon.

Evacuation efforts remained under way more than 17 hours after the fires started, said Capt. Craig Schwartz, acting chief of the Santa Rosa police. “Officers were going in and reporting that they were having a hard time getting out,” he said.

Cheri Sharp said her home of 26 years in Santa Rosa was among those that were destroyed.

“All our pictures are gone. Everything. Everything is gone,” Sharp told NBC affiliate KOBI of Medford, Oregon, near the northern California border. “We’ve got a fire pit. It’s pretty awful.

“But we’re all healthy and safe, and we have to try and be grateful for that,” she said. “But it’s pretty awful.”

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Donna T. Mitchell

Author: Donna T. Mitchell

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