Dozens plucked from brink of California wildfire

Wildfires are sweeping through northern California Wednesday with strong, dry winds expected to pick up later in the day and further fan an inferno that's already left at least 21 people dead and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.
A postman delivering mail on Tuesday in fire-devastated Santa Rosa, California, in a screengrab from a video on social media. Helicopters rescued 42 people in the town of Napa from the fires.
A postman delivering mail on Tuesday in fire-devastated Santa Rosa, California, in a screengrab from a video on social media. Helicopters rescued 42 people in the town of Napa from the fires.PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO/SACRAMENTO • Helicopter pilot Pete Gavitte peered through his night-vision goggles as he approached a fast-growing wildfire near the California wine country town of Napa, and instantly knew there was trouble ahead.

"We saw that it was actually really large, looked like a nuke had gone off or something," said Mr Gavitte, an 18-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol.

As sirens blared from his helicopter late on Sunday, residents were grabbing their belongings and jumping into their cars to head down Atlas Peak Road, the only way out of the rural community.

But unbeknown to those on the ground, flames would soon engulf the road, with downed trees and power poles blocking exits. Over the next few days, the raging fires would kill at least 23 people and destroy 3,500 homes and businesses.

Mr Gavitte, 49, and his first officer and paramedic Whitney Lowe, 35, soon landed near a vineyard to begin what would become an extraordinary seven-hour rescue operation, conducted through the night by two helicopters in winds gusting up to 113kmh.

Mr Lowe ran down a hill towards eight cars blocked by a fallen tree, while Mr Gavitte stayed at the helm. There were far too many people to fly in a single trip: On the first flight, a husband parted with his seven-year-old son, wife and her parents when there was no room left on board, Mr Lowe said. The man was later rescued.

The helicopters ultimately rescued 42 people, five dogs and a cat - including a 94-year-old woman dressed in a hospital gown whom Mr Lowe had to carry from her car, he said.

Fires in Northern California's wine country remained almost completely uncontained yesterday morning. Officials warned that some of the big fires could merge, even as new blazes erupted, and thousands of people have been told to prepare to leave their homes - if they have not already.

TERRIFYING SIGHT

We saw that it was actually really large, looked like a nuke had gone off or something.

HELICOPTER PILOT PETE GAVITTE, on the scene he saw as he flew over Napa.

About 4,400 are in shelters and hundreds are reported missing, officials said. Statewide, 8,000 firefighters are working to contain the fires.

Ms Jennifer Pierre returned to her neighbourhood in the city of Santa Rosa to see what was left of her house: almost nothing.

Everything was ashes, including her children's baby blankets that she used to spray with her perfume, and her wedding dress and her wedding ring. Even the valuables in their fireproof safe had burned or melted.

She and her husband had escaped with the clothes on their backs, and the couple now smelled like the smoky remains of their home.

 
 
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"I could not wash that smell off me," Ms Pierre said. "You just want to scrub it out of you and get the smell out of you. Every time you breathe, this whole ordeal immediately comes back to you."

While the cause of the fires has not been conclusively determined, they are thought to have been sparked by power lines toppled by gale-force winds, and fanned by hot, dry "Diablo" winds that blew into northern California towards the Pacific.

President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in California, freeing up federal funding and resources to help fight the fires. And Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in eight counties.

REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2017, with the headline 'Dozens plucked from brink of California wildfire'. Print Edition | Subscribe