California wildfires grow in number, reduce years-long dreams to embers

Wildfires tearing through California’s wine country flared up Wednesday, destroying hundreds more homes and other buildings and leading to new evacuation orders as authorities raised the death toll to 21 and warned that the number was expected to rise.

At least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed since the wildfires started Sunday, making them the third-most deadly and destructive blazes in state history.

Nearly three days after the flames ignited in Northern California, firefighters were still unable to gain control the blazes, which were growing in number. 

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Chief Ken Pimlott gave an updated death toll Wednesday, calling the series of wildfires in wine country “a serious, critical, catastrophic event.”

He said 8,000 firefighters are focusing on protecting lives and property as they battle the flames chewing through critically dry vegetation.

Deaths have been reported in Sonoma, Napa, Yuma and Mendocino counties.

Dramatic dashcam video of car driving through corridor of flame0:12

Flames have raced across the wine-growing region and the coastal beauty of Mendocino further north, leaving little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. Whole neighbourhoods are gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark sites that were once family homes.

Authorities ordered more evacuations for parts of Sonoma Valley after a blaze grew to 113 square kilometres. Officials also cautioned that after a day of cooler weather and calmer winds, dangerous gusts will return Wednesday.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said the reports of missing people jumped to over 600, up from about 200 a day earlier. But officials believe many of those people will be found, saying that the chaotic evacuations and poor communications over the past few days have made finding friends and family difficult.

Despite that, he expects the death toll will rise.

“The devastation is enormous,” he said. “We can’t even get into most areas. I would expect the number to go up.”

Officials in Napa County say almost half of the population of Calistoga, a town of 5,000 people, were ordered to evacuate before sunrise. Officials went block by block, knocking on doors between 3 and 6 a.m. to warn people to leave, Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said.

New evacuation orders were also in place for Green Valley in Solano County.

Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said high winds and low humidity fueled the fires and similar conditions were expected again.

“Yesterday was a very aggressive day for fire behavior with some rapid expansion for fires,” he said at a news conference. “We are expecting some extreme fire behavior” on Wednesday.

In Southern California, cooler weather and moist ocean air helped firefighters gain ground against a wildfire that has scorched more than a dozen square miles.

Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi said the blaze was nearly halfway surrounded and full containment was expected by Saturday, but another round of gusty winds and low humidity levels could arrive late Thursday.

Thousands were left picking up the pieces.

Jose Garnica worked for more than two decades to build up his dream home that was reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes by the deadly firestorm striking Northern California.

‘You feel helpless’

Garnica, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico over 20 years ago, had finally decided he could afford to upgrade parts of his Santa Rosa house after building a stable career with the local garbage company and saving nearly everything he and his wife earned.

Over the past two years, he replaced the siding and installed a new air conditioner, stainless steel appliances and new flooring. He bought a new 1.5-metre television. On Saturday, the 44-year-old got an estimate to replace the fence, one of the last items on his list.

But at 3:30 a.m. local time Monday, he watched his house become one of the more than 2,000 homes and businesses destroyed by the series of blazes across the region that had killed at least 17 people.

Massive fires in California cause death and destruction2:10

“You feel helpless,” he said Tuesday. “There’s nothing you can do. Everything, your whole life, goes through your mind in a minute. Everything you had done. I left all my family behind in Mexico to get a better life. Finally we were just coming to the comfort level, and this happens.”

Garnica tried to save the home with a garden hose. He and a neighbour tried to cut open the neighbour’s above-ground pool, hoping the water would protect their homes. In 15 minutes, the entire neighbourhood caught fire, he said.

“If I knew this was going to happen, maybe those 45 minutes I spent trying to put the fire down, I should’ve just grabbed all the belongings,” Garnica said. “But I didn’t think it was going to happen.”

Those destructive flames raced across the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties and the coastal beauty of Mendocino further north, leaving little more than smouldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. Whole neighbourhoods are gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark sites that were once family homes.

In some torched neighbourhoods, fire hydrants still had hoses attached, apparently abandoned by firefighters who had to flee.

David Leal, 55, and his wife and stepson salvaged a few decorative items from their Santa Rosa home, including a wind chime, tiles from the backsplash in the kitchen, a decorative sun and a cross.

Grateful to be alive

“Our plan is to keep those things, and when we rebuild, they’ll be mementos of what we’ve lived through, and of, just, resilience,” Leal said. “It’s hard not to get emotional.”

In the meantime, Leal got a post office box so the family can get mail, a new laptop and some clothes. They’re living out of their two vehicles for now.

“We’ll be back home again sooner than later, and with our chins held high,” he said, choking back tears. “And hopefully we’ll be amongst our neighbours and friends as they do the same.”

APTOPIX California Wildfires

A Napa County firefighter sprays water on a home on Monday in Napa. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

Leal, a U.S. Navy veteran, fled with his family, two dogs and cat to nearby Petaluma late Sunday after seeing fierce, hot winds and flames whipping in the distance.

“We didn’t have time to think about what to grab. We grabbed what we saw,” he said. He got his external hard drive, which was lying out, but left his laptop.

Garnica also hung onto hope, saying he was not back at Square 1.

“I came into the States with nothing. I didn’t have anything,” Garnica said. “I think I’m better off than how I came in. At least I got a job. I got a family. I’m healthy.”

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