'They Ran for Their Lives': Californians Grapple With Deadly Wildfires

Fire crews attempting to beat back a barrage of Northern California wildfires that have killed at least 15 people were looking for relief Tuesday afternoon, provided by cooler temperatures and weakening winds.

Authorities continued to grapple with containing the 17 firestorms raging simultaneously across the state’s wine country, including in Napa and Sonoma counties, where fierce winds and months of dry weather helped to kindle the flames.


Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said at least 115,000 acres — about two and a half times as big as Washington, D.C. — had burned so far. Firefighters from across California as well Nevada were called in as reinforcements.

“The fires are still out there and they are still actively growing,” Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said at a news conference.

Authorities hoped to get a reprieve from the strong wind gusts that first fanned the fires that were ignited late Sunday night and caught some residents by surprise.

Some barely had time to escape.

“You can see folks’ cars parked in their driveways. They didn’t even have a chance to get into their cars and drive them away, in some cases,” said Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean. “This was at night. People were asleep, so they were woken and they … ran for their lives.”

Forecasters said the renewed threat from offshore winds and lower humidity could return Wednesday, hindering any progress.

The two largest fires — the so-called Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County and the so-called Atlas Peak Fire in Napa County — torched 27,000 and 25,000 acres, respectively, and were still not contained as of Tuesday morning, officials said.

Image: A firefighters walks near a home in Santa Rosa

Image: A firefighters walks near a home in Santa Rosa

A firefighters walks near a home in Santa Rosa, Calif., Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. Jeff Chiu / AP

More than 1,500 homes and commercial structures were destroyed, including in Santa Rosa, a city of more than 167,000. Whole neighborhoods were leveled by the fire and reduced to ashes.

Brian Gilman, a resident of Santa Rosa, lost nearly everything. In the rubble, he found his mother’s ruby ring.

“Everything else is devastated,” he said. “But the things that she asked for, amazingly, are still here.”

Officials said they were still concerned about safety and urged residents not to try to return to their homes.

Sonoma County officials have received some 240 missing persons reports, Sheriff Robert Giordano told reporters, and 57 of those people have been located as of Tuesday afternoon.

Among those killed were an 100-year-old, Charlie Rippey, a World War II veteran, and his 98-year-old wife, Sara, in Napa County. A son told NBC Bay Area that his parents’ caregiver was unable to escort them to safety before the roof caved in.

“All the windows started to explode,” Chuck Rippey said. “Smoke and heat, all that everywhere. And she just couldn’t find ’em.”

John Bailey, a professor at Oregon State University’s college of forestry, said a perfect storm has allowed for these intense fires to ravage Northern California.

Photos: Massive Wildfires Consume Homes Across Northern California

“Hot dry conditions, and then throwing in winds, really expands burnability,” he said, adding, “We just have an unprecedented amount of fuel on our landscapes.”

The fires are collectively among the deadliest in the state’s history. The last single fire to see as many deaths was San Diego County’s Cedar Fire in October 2003, which destroyed 2,200 homes and was started accidentally by a hunter.

Authorities said it’s too soon to say the origins of these latest blazes. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to the state’s request for federal funds to help with the destruction from the fires.

See Also: California wildfire toll by the numbers

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