At least 10 killed, hundreds of buildings destroyed in wildfires in Northern California

A firefighter walks near a pool as a neighbouring home burns in the Napa wine region in California on Oct 9, 2017, as multiple wind-driven fires continue to whip through the region.
A firefighter walks near a pool as a neighbouring home burns in the Napa wine region in California on Oct 9, 2017, as multiple wind-driven fires continue to whip through the region. PHOTO: AFP
An inmate firefighter monitors flames as a house burns in the Napa wine region in California on Oct 9, 2017, as multiple wind-driven fires continue to whip through the region.
An inmate firefighter monitors flames as a house burns in the Napa wine region in California on Oct 9, 2017, as multiple wind-driven fires continue to whip through the region. PHOTO: AFP
Resident Louis Reavis views his burnt classic Oldsmobile at his home in Napa, California on Oct 9, 2017.
Resident Louis Reavis views his burnt classic Oldsmobile at his home in Napa, California on Oct 9, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO (NYTIMES) - Fast-moving wildfires raged across several counties in Northern California on Monday (Oct 9), killing at least 10 people, forcing the evacuation of up to 20,000 people and destroying hundreds of buildings, the authorities said.

Firefighters were battling blazes in eight counties - Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Yuba, Nevada, Calaveras and Butte - officials said.

Janet Upton, a deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said that at least 14 fires had destroyed an estimated 1,500 residential and commercial structures and had burned more than 23,000ha since late Sunday night. Thousands had been evacuated, she said.

Governor Jerry Brown issued an emergency proclamation for Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties, saying the fires had damaged critical infrastructure and threatened thousands of homes.

"This is really serious, it's moving fast. The heat, the lack of humidity and the winds are all driving a very dangerous situation and making it worse," the Governor said at a morning news conference. "It's not under control by any means. But we're on it in the best way we know how."

Upton said that there had been reports of injuries and residents unaccounted for. Asked whether any deaths had been reported, she said that she did not have an estimate but that "we do fear the worst".

The fires began at about 7am Singapore time on Monday and were fanned by wind gusts moving faster than  80kmh, Upton said. The worst fires in Northern California tend to hit in October, when dry conditions prime them to spread fast and far as heavy winds, known as north winds or diablo winds, buffet the region.

Upton said that conditions were critically dry, given the lack of moisture in the air and the build-up of grass, brush and trees.

"Combined, that's a recipe for disaster," she said.

Smoke billowed into the Bay Area, but the Marin County Fire Department reported that there were no separate fires in the area.

Reports suggested that residents in the region were caught unawares, many of them fleeing the area in cars and on foot as firefighters rushed to contain the outbreak. A number of roadways, including highways, were blocked by fire.

Neighbourhoods in Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma, were evacuated, according to the city manager, who said the Kaiser Permanente and Sutter hospitals were being cleared out.

Lisa Kaldunski, an operator at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, said around 6.30am local time that the facility was being evacuated and that patients were being taken to other area hospitals.

Marc Brown, a spokesman for Kaiser Permanente, said about 130 patients had been evacuated from the Santa Rosa medical centre because of the fires.

The Lake and Mendocino county sheriffs' offices ordered evacuations. The Butte County sheriff announced that there were two fires in the area and listed neighbourhoods where evacuation was mandatory.

Belia Ramos, chairman of the Napa County Board of Supervisors, said the county was dealing with three main fires. One has threatened more than 4,000ha in northern Napa County, another has endangered 3,200ha to 4,800ha, and a third has affected about 800ha, she said.

 

Ramos said the fires were moving quickly and unpredictably. She said she did not know how many people had been evacuated early Monday, but added that the areas being evacuated were large and densely populated.

 

"Certainly we know that the numbers are high," she said. "As day breaks and we get a better handle on this situation, we'll be able to update those numbers."

California was hit by fires throughout the summer. Late last month, several blazes led to the evacuation of about 1,000 people in Southern California.

"I've been with the department for 31 years and some years are notorious and they're burned in your memory," Upton said. "I'm afraid that 2017 is going to be added to that list now."