10,000 firefighters battle California blazes as death toll rises to 40

Above: A wildfire raging near the city of Santa Rosa, where thousands of people were forced to leave their homes last Saturday. Left: The ruins of houses destroyed by a fire in Santa Rosa. The fires have damaged or destroyed about 5,700 structures, r
A wildfire raging near the city of Santa Rosa, where thousands of people were forced to leave their homes last Saturday.PHOTO: REUTERS
Above: A wildfire raging near the city of Santa Rosa, where thousands of people were forced to leave their homes last Saturday. Left: The ruins of houses destroyed by a fire in Santa Rosa. The fires have damaged or destroyed about 5,700 structures, r
The ruins of houses destroyed by a fire in Santa Rosa. The fires have damaged or destroyed about 5,700 structures, reducing homes and businesses to ash.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SANTA ROSA • The authorities hope weaker winds will help more than 10,000 firefighters battle the deadliest blazes in California history, which have killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of structures in one of the state's worst natural disasters in years.

Fast-moving fires spread by shifting winds forced thousands more to evacuate their homes last Saturday as the death toll over the week rose to 40, with hundreds missing.

Thousands of firefighters supported by air tankers and helicopters battled 16 major wildfires in areas north of San Francisco that have consumed nearly 865 sq km - an area larger than New York City.

The National Weather Service expected arid winds to die down yesterday, but no rain was forecast to fall on the fires till Wednesday.

The 40 confirmed fatalities make the blazes California's deadliest fire event, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

With 235 people still missing on Saturday in Sonoma county alone, and rubble from thousands of incinerated dwellings yet to be searched, the authorities expect the death toll to climb.

The fires have forced some 100,000 people from their homes and damaged or destroyed about 5,700 structures, reducing homes and businesses to ash.

Some victims were asleep when flames engulfed their homes, while others had only minutes to flee.

"This is truly one of the greatest tragedies that California has ever faced. The devastation is just unbelievable. It is a horror that no one could have imagined," California Governor Jerry Brown said on a visit to Santa Rosa, about 80km north of San Francisco.

Amid the adversity, heroic stories have emerged, including one about 16-year-old twins Benjamin and Natalie Lasker, who woke their parents on the night of Oct 8 after finding flames engulfing the landscape.

The persistent alarms from Benjamin gave the family time to escape the conflagration with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Benjamin and his twin sister went on to awaken another eight families in their Fountain Grove neighbourhood in Santa Rosa, pounding on doors, yelling "Fire!" and shining lights in windows.

There were some glimmers of hope as winds weakened and firefighters made progress with blazes such as one in the Yuba county named the Cascade Fire, which spread nearly 4,000ha and was 87 per cent contained on Saturday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

Weakening winds should help, but high temperatures and dry conditions were expected to remain through the weekend, forecasters said.

"This is still very much in play. The danger is still very present," said US Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California.

At least a dozen Napa Valley and Sonoma county wineries were damaged or destroyed, throwing the state's wine industry and related tourism into disarray.

For the picturesque Napa Valley town of Calistoga, now evacuated, the winds were a double-edged sword. The town was spared by hazardous winds when they shifted, but Mayor Chris Canning warned that a resurgence could pose a new threat.

Cal Fire estimated that the fires would be contained by Friday.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2017, with the headline '10,000 firefighters battle California blazes as death toll rises to 40'. Print Edition | Subscribe