News & Politics

At Least 11 Dead and 100 Missing as Wildfires Rage Across Northern California

Damage and death toll rises as impacts come into view.

Wildfire in Santa Rosa, California, Oct 9, 2017.
Photo Credit: Bill Janis / Flickr

The Northern California wildfires that destroyed swaths of Napa and Sonoma Counties north of San Francisco were still uncontrolled on Tuesday morning.

Emergency workers were searching for more than 100 missing people. Fire fighters continued to battle the blazes and area residents coped with upended lives and damages that will total into the hundreds of millions.

At least 11 people were reported dead in the firestorm that starting after midnight Monday, as so-called Santa Ana winds reaching 50 miles per hours or more blew in from the ocean and turned the east-west valleys along the Napa and Sonoma County lines into fire-breathing wind tunnels. The ensuing cauldron destroyed at least 1,500 homes from million-dollar mansions on hilltops to entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, the region's largest municipality, where the firestorm hit the valley floor and swept away middle-class subdivisions, business districts and low-income trailer parks.

Some of the region's best-known and oldest wineries were destroyed. The damage was severe along the Silverado Trail, a highway flanking eastern Napa Valley, where Signorello, Stags Leap, Cliff Lede and others were destroyed or severely damaged. Elsewhere on the Napa-Sonoma line, Chateau St. Jean, and the oldest family-owned winery, Gundlach Bundscho, also burned down.

The fires were so swift, sudden and vast on Monday that emergency workers focused on rescuing people, letting many structures burn. The damage was compounded because fire departments from one town could not tap into the water systems in others, due to lack of uniform fire hydrant fittings. 

October is one of the driest months in Northern California and when some of the most severe fires have occurred. 

The multiple firestorms broke out in the early morning hours. Local news reports were filled with testimonials from people who were awakened by the smell of smoke after 2am and saw an encroaching red glowing sky. Untold numbers of people fled with only the clothes on their backs, heading away from the wall of flames that ignited and grew and consumed everything combustible.

As word of the fire spread Monday morning, people throughout the Bay Area tried to reach family and friends in the fire zone. This was complicated by cellphone coverage failing across swaths of fire-affected areas. The situation was especially difficult in the towns of Napa and Sonoma, as they were surrounded by many smaller localized outbreaks of fire, also shutting down major roadways.

News reports from helicopter surveys said several small towns nestled in the Sonoma County hills were wiped out.

Meanwhile, thousands of people in homes near the fire lines were packing their cars with valuables in anticipation of being ordered by police to evacuate. Schools throughout the region were closed and people were told to stay indoors due to the smoke. By Tuesday, some people were allowed to return to their homes to see the damage. Many only saw piles of ash with gas lines still flaring flames, as Pacific Gas and Electric could not allow workers into still-hot neighborhoods to turn off gas lines.

The largest regional hospitals were closed, not because they were threatened by fire, but because of the air quality and lack of access. A parade of ambulances took the sickest patients to Marin General Hospital and other regional medical centers.

Extensive reporting by the San Francisco Chronicle detailed the extent of the devastation, which was not fully known as the fires were not yet contained. Reporters noted that entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, the north bay's largest city, were razed and fixtures in the North Bay community, from private schools and major performing venues were destroyed.

The newspaper also reported that the fire destroyed quantities of marijuana about to be harvested. Similarly, early assessments of the damage to wineries were grim. While local papers were reporting many wineries had picked most of their fruit, locals who work in the industry said the heat could have damaged of ruined untold volumes from recent years aging in storage tanks.

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the affected counties, which will trigger state and federal disaster relief.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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