HELENA (California) • A wind-driven wildfire that erupted on Sunday in northern California's Napa Valley wine country spread across nearly 809ha and forced the evacuation of a hospital and hundreds of homes, authorities said.
Fire crews were out in force, scrambling to fend off flames threatening neighbourhoods and vineyards at the northern end of the famed wine-growing valley and surrounding hillsides, about 120km north of San Francisco.
The blaze, dubbed the Glass Fire, broke out before dawn near Calistoga and raced towards the adjacent communities of Deer Park and St Helena, with flames reaching near the Adventist Health St Helena hospital.
All 55 patients there at the time were safely evacuated by ambulance and helicopter over the course of five hours, hospital spokesman Linda Williams said. "We had ambulances lined up from all over the Bay area," she told Reuters, adding that although smoke shrouded the facility, the skies above were clear enough for the helicopters' airlift efforts.
It was the second wildfire-related evacuation of the 151-bed hospital in a month, after a massive cluster of lightning-sparked blazes that swept through several counties north of the San Francisco Bay region last month.
The authorities also ordered about 600 homes evacuated on Sunday, with residents of 1,400 more warned to be ready to flee at a moment's notice, said Mr Tyree Zander, a spokesman for the state's forestry and fire protection department. The notices affected at least 5,000 people, he added.
By evening, flames stoked by winds gusting up to 80kmh had scorched about 728ha of grassy rolling hillsides and oak woodlands, with little or no containment, Mr Zander said.
The cause of the fire is being investigated. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
The blaze erupted midway through the traditional grape-harvesting period in the Napa Valley, world renowned as one of California's premier wine-producing regions. The area's 475 wineries account for just 4 per cent of the state's total annual grape harvest but half of the retail value of all California wines sold, according to the Napa Valley Vintners trade group.
Napa and other wine-growing regions have been hit by wildfires in and around the Bay area for several years. Ms Susan Krausz, co-owner of Arkenstone Estate Vineyards in the Howell Mountain community of Angwin, said it would take days or weeks to assess the impact of the latest blaze on valley vintners.
"Most people have harvested," she said, but added: "Any time's a bad time for a fire."
The public safety power shutoffs were expected to affect about 65,000 regional homes and businesses, said PG&E, the state's largest electric utility.
A red flag warning for extreme wildfire risks for Napa Valley would run through yesterday.
California wildfires have scorched more than 1.5 million ha in the first nine months of 2020, far exceeding any single year in state history, killing 26 people and destroying more than 7,000 structures.