As deadly fires ravage California wine country, officials are ‘preparing for further fatalities’

A structure at Journey's End mobile home park burns in Santa Rosa, Calif., Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Santa Rosa, Calif. • After battling massive, fast-moving wildfires that have killed at least 11 people and torched 107,000 acres across California, most of them in wine country, firefighters are hoping for some reprieve Tuesday morning as strong winds that fanned flames the day before continue to weaken.

Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director for Cal Fire, said winds have slowed to single-digit speeds, down from the 50 to 60 mph gusts reported Monday.

“That’s given us a good opportunity to make progress on these fires,” Berlant said. “We’re hoping to continue to see less wind and cooler temperatures. That combination is a welcome sight compared to what we dealt with just 24 hours ago.”

The National Weather Service expects temperatures in the North Bay area, which includes at least three counties affected by the fires, to hover between the lower to mid-70s for the rest of the week, with wind gusts of up to 20 mph.

Crews are fighting 17 wildfires that destroyed at least 1,500 homes and commercial buildings, mostly in Northern California, and sent more than 20,000 people fleeing for safety.

Ten people from California’s wine country have been reported dead as of Tuesday morning, and officials warned that the death toll is likely to rise.

Seven of the deaths were in Sonoma County, where the sheriff’s office said Tuesday that they had received about 150 missing-persons reports. “We are confident that many of these people will be found safe and reunited with loved ones, but unfortunately we are preparing for further fatalities,” sheriff’s officials said.

Two deaths were reported in the Atlas Fire in Napa County. One person was killed during a smaller but fast-moving fire in Mendocino County to the north, said Jonathan Cox, a battalion chief and spokesman for Cal Fire. An 11th death was reported in Yuba County near the Sacramento area, well outside of wine country, Cal Fire said.

“This is really serious. It’s moving fast,” Gov. Jerry Brown, D, said Monday at a news conference in which he declared an emergency in seven counties. “The heat, the lack of humidity and the winds are all driving a very dangerous situation and making it worse. It’s not under control by any means. But we’re on it in the best way we know how.”

Later Monday, Brown wrote a five-page letter to President Donald Trump seeking federal emergency aid. A vocal critic of Trump’s politics, Brown wrote that he has “determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that an effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and affected local governments and supplemental federal assistance is necessary.”

The pace of the burn took firefighters by surprise: The fires torched 20,000 acres in about 12 hours Monday, which Cal Fire’s Cox called “a phenomenal rate of growth.”

The fires, which first whipped up Sunday night, added to what has already been a severe fire season in the West. More than 8 million acres have burned in at least four states, raising questions from across the political spectrum about the connection to climate change and forest management practices.

The current wildfires had burned more than 73,000 acres in Northern California by Monday evening, nearly all of those in Sonoma and Napa counties, the heartland of the state’s renowned wine industry.

The situation in Santa Rosa, the largest city in Sonoma County, appeared dire. The Tubbs Fire, as the biggest blaze in Sonoma is known, has charred 27,000 acres in the county. The fire sped southwest from Calistoga in Napa Valley, jumped Highway 101 and entered Santa Rosa. Cal Fire officials said the cause is under investigation.

Thick smoke hung over the county, and ash rained down in some towns. People wore masks on the streets, and businesses shut down.

A resident, Ron Dodds, told TV station KTVU that “people are running red lights, there is chaos ensuing.”

“It’s a scary time,” Dodds said. “It looks like Armageddon.”

Napa and Sonoma counties, the source of some of the country’s best wines, has more than 100 acres of wine grapes and are home to more than 650 wineries, according to the Wine Institute. Witness accounts suggested that the damage to the wine industry, which generates more than more than $55 billion in economic activity in California - and twice as much nationally - each year, could be significant.

“It looks like a bombing run,” Joe Nielsen, the winemaker at Donelan Family Wines in Sonoma County, told SFGate. “Just chimneys and burned-out cars and cooked trees.”

Images showed one Napa winery, Signorello Estate, completely destroyed by fire.

Evacuations, some of which were done by helicopters, began late Sunday evening and continued through Monday. Patients at least two hospitals, Santa Rosa Medical Center and Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, were evacuated to hospitals in neighboring counties, officials said.

Some people left burning homes for evacuation centers, only to find those centers threatened by fire a few hours later.

In Rincon Valley, on the northeast outskirts of Santa Rosa, pastor Andy VomSteeg opened his New Vintage Church to those fleeing the fire. By Monday afternoon, more than 400 people, many of them elderly, had taken refuge inside.

“I left without my clothes,” said Nell Magnuson, a resident of the luxury retirement home Villa Capri. She wore only a maroon robe.

“We had to get out in a hurry,” she said. “When we left, the flames were in the second floor.”

Magnuson, who was worried about where she would sleep Monday night, said that “our whole lives have turned upside down. We don’t have a clue what’s going to happen. It’s just losing everything. All the pictures, my whole life.”

But before her concerns could be addressed, the fire began to threaten the church.

“You caught us just in time,” Magnuson said as she headed for the exit. “We’re being evacuated again.”

In Healdsburg, a town nearly circled by fire 16 miles north of Santa Rosa, exhausted evacuees bought supplies, fueled up and looked for a place to stay for the night.

Cindy Luzzi, who was visiting her son and his family in Santa Rosa, said her daughter-in-law got a call from a neighbor at about 2:30 a.m., telling them to evacuate.

“At first we didn’t think it was anything to worry about. Then we went downstairs, opened our front door and looked toward the center of town,” Luzzi said. “It was just red, nothing but red.”

Luzzi, her daughter-in-law and two young grandchildren took refuge at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in nearby Geyserville from 3 a.m. until 8 a.m., waiting for her son to join them. They were then able to book a room at the Best Western in town. But by 2 p.m., the hotel had filled up.

Shortages of rooms, bottled water and fuel were affecting surrounding towns as well.

“We’re almost out of gas,” said Hardeep Gill, who owns a filling station in downtown Healdsburg, just off Highway 101.

Gill, who came into work because his employees couldn’t get there, said he had lost a commercial building he owned worth about $9 million.

“I got a call around 3 a.m. because the fire sprinklers were going off,” he said. “That’s when I knew it was a total loss.”

Kerr reported from Healdsburg, Calif., and Wilson and Phillips reported from Washington. Alissa Greenberg in Berkeley, Calif., and Mary Hui, Herman Wong and J. Freedom du Lac in Washington contributed to this report.