10 People Killed as California’s Wine Country Goes Up in ‘Armageddon’-like Flames; 1,500 Structures Destroyed; 20,000 Forced to Evacuate

A swarm of fires supercharged by powerful winds ripped through Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties Monday, killing at least 10 people, injuring dozens of others, destroying more than 1,500 homes and businesses, and turning prominent wineries to ash.

Starting in the middle of the night, the fires hopscotched across neighborhoods, raced across fields and jumped freeways. Wind gusts up to 70 mph pushed walls of flames nearly 100 feet high, throwing embers ahead like hot fingers into strip malls and subdivisions. Many people who fled the surge had enough time to grab car keys, perhaps a pet, but not much more.

And some didn’t get out. Sonoma County sheriff’s officials said seven people had died in that county. Two people died in a blaze in Napa, state fire officials said. A 10th person was killed in Mendocino County.

Facing one of the most damaging series of blazes in modern California history — fires that left thousands of evacuees in scores of emergency shelters and parts of the wine industry potentially crippled — Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Napa and Sonoma counties as well as fire-struck Yuba County. The move will make it easier for local and state officials to secure government aid.

The blazes blackened more than 65,000 acres and blanketed much of the Bay Area in cough-inducing smoke. And it wasn’t just the North Bay that was hit hard.

In Mendocino County, sheriff’s Capt. Gregory Van Patten said flames darted early Monday from the community of Potter Valley through rugged terrain to the west as wind gusts downed trees and power lines. The speed of the fire, he said, left little time for escape in Redwood Valley, a town of 2,000 people located about 8 miles north of Ukiah.

He said at least one person had died, and that the number could rise.

“It looks like we will have multiple fatalities,” Van Patten said. “There were areas where there just wasn’t enough time to give an evacuation notice because the spread of the fire was so rapid. A lot of the area was overcome before we got ourselves injected into the situation.”

To the south, more than 100 people were treated for injuries, including burns and smoke inhalation, at hospitals in Napa and Sonoma counties. Two patients with severe burns were in critical condition at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, officials said.

Hundreds of firefighters streamed into the region. The California Highway Patrol said it had used helicopters to rescue 42 people, some of them vineyard workers. Those saved from the flames range in age from 5 to 91.

But Chief Ken Pimlott of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said crews had “limited or no containment” on the fires as of Monday afternoon, and that many communities “were just overrun.”

Officials were looking into the cause of the fires.

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SOURCE: Peter Fimrite, Jill Tucker, Kurtis Alexander, and Demian Bulwa
San Francisco Chronicle / SFGate