Northern California wildfires kill 3, force evacuation of thousands

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A wind-driven wildfire raged for a second day through northern California on Monday, burning homes, forcing residents to flee and threatening some world-renowned vineyards.
More than a thousand firefighters are battling the Glass Fire. PHOTO: AFP
More than a thousand firefighters are battling the Glass Fire. PHOTO: AFP
More than a thousand firefighters are battling the Glass Fire. PHOTO: AFP

SANTA ROSA (REUTERS) - A northern California wildfire raging in the foothills of the Cascade range has claimed three lives, officials said on Monday (Sept 28), as a separate blaze
prompted mass evacuations and spread turmoil to the famed wine-producing regions of Napa and Sonoma counties

The three fatalities in the so-called Zogg Fire in Shasta County, which erupted on Sunday near the town of Redding, about 354km north of San Francisco, were reported by the county sheriff and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

They were all civilians.

No further details about the victims or the precise circumstances of their deaths were immediately provided.

But the deaths bring to 29 the number of people killed since mid-August in a California wildfire season of historic proportions.

The Zogg fire, which has destroyed 146 structures and charred about 6,000ha of rolling grassy hillsides and oak woodlands thick with dry scrub, coincided with the outbreak of another conflagration in the heart of northern California's wine country.

The blaze dubbed the Glass Fire had spread across 14,570ha of similar terrain in Napa and Sonoma counties since early Sunday, incinerating more than 100 homes and other buildings, forcing thousands of residents to flee and threatening world-renowned vineyards, according to CalFire.

Both fires were listed at zero containment as of Monday evening. The cause of each was under investigation.

They marked the latest flashpoint in a historically destructive wildfire season throughout the Western United States.

In California alone, wildfires far have scorched 1.5 million hectares since January - far exceeding any single year in state history.

They have been stoked by intense, prolonged bouts of heat, high winds and other weather extremes that scientists point to as signs of climate change.

Since mid-August, fires in the state have killed 26 people and destroyed over 7,000 structures.

The Glass Fire broke out in Napa Valley before dawn near Calistoga before merging with two other blazes into a larger eruption of flames straddling western Napa County and an adjacent swath of Sonoma County.

In one notable property loss, the mansion-like Chateau Boswell winery in St. Helena, a familiar landmark along the Silverado Trail road running the length of the Napa Valley, went up in flames on Sunday night.

An estimated 60,000 residents have been placed under evacuation orders or advisories in Sonoma and Napa counties combined.

Not everyone heeded evacuation orders.

As the small city of Santa Rosa emptied out around him, Jas Sihota stationed himself on his front porch with his garden hose close at hand, darting out every 15 minutes or so to douse spot fires around neighbouring houses seeded by wind-blown embers under a hazy red sun.

Sihota, a radiology technician at a nearby hospital, had not slept in some 24 hours since the blaze, since named the Glass Fire, ignited on Sunday morning near Calistoga about 60 miles (96.5 km) north of San Francisco.

"I wouldn't have a house if I didn't stay," said Sihota, adding that neither would some of his neighbours. At least 10 homes elsewhere on the street beyond the reach of his hose were destroyed.

In 2017, roughly 5 percent of Santa Rosa's homes were lost when downed power lines sparked a devastating firestorm in October that swept the region, killing 19 people.


The Glass struck about midway through the region's traditional grape-harvesting season, already disrupted by a spate of large fires earlier this summer.

Several Napa Valley growers said recently they would forgo a 2020 vintage altogether due to smoke contamination of ripening grapes waiting to be picked.

The 475 vintners in Napa Valley alone account for just 4 per cent of the state's grape harvest but half the retail value of all California wines sold. Sonoma County, too, has become a premiere viticulture region with some 450 wineries and a million acres of vineyards.

The full impact on the region's wine business remains to be seen and will differ for each grower, depending on how far along they are in production, said Ms Teresa Wall, spokeswoman for the Napa Valley Vintners trade group.

"It's completely variable," she said. "There are some who were close to wrapping up (harvests), and some who were still planning to leave their grapes hanging out there for a while."

Still, the fires were causing major disruptions to some of the area's most vulnerable residents in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 151-bed Adventist Health St. Helena hospital was forced to evacuate patients on Sunday, the second time in a month following a lightning-sparked wildfire in August.

On Monday, residents at Oakmont Gardens, a retirement community in Santa Rosa, leaned on walkers as they waited to board a bus taking them to safety, their face masks doubling as protection against smoke and the novel coronavirus.

More than a thousand firefighters are battling the Glass Fire. PHOTO: AFP

About 37,000 homes and business have sustained power disruptions across the region, some from precautionary shutoffs of transmission lines to reduce wildfire risks in the midst of extremely windy, hot, dry weather, Pacific Gas and Electric Company reported.

CalFire said 1,000-plus firefighters were battling the Glass Fire, with at least 18,000 on the front lines of more than two dozen major blazes across the state.

Red flag warnings for extreme wildfire risks remained posted for much of northern California, forecasting low humidity and gale-force wind gusts.

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