3 killed in fresh wildfires in Northern California

Tim Arango, Johnny Diaz and Carly Stern, The New York Times

Posted at Sep 29 2020 03:10 PM | Updated as of Sep 29 2020 03:12 PM

Firefighters at a home they couldn't save from a wildfire in Santa Rosa, Calif., Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. Two fast-moving wildfires, having burned more than 26,000 acres in Northern California since they began on Sunday, prompted new evacuation orders for thousands of people as the year’s grueling fire season wore on. Jim Wilson, The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — California’s famed wine country, already suffering an economic blow brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and covered in smoke for weeks, is on fire again.

The state’s losses were mounting Monday as two new wildfires burned out of control, killing three people in Shasta County, the sheriff said. And in wine country, the famous Chateau Boswell winery was gone, a community of tiny homes for formerly homeless people has burned, and an untold number of houses were feared lost.

For residents, still haunted by fires that tore through the area three years ago, destroying thousands of homes and killing dozens of people, the wildfires that exploded Sunday were as familiar as they were terrifying.

“We’ve evacuated and we are watching the news and watching my district burn again,” Susan Gorin, a Sonoma County supervisor, said Monday morning from a hotel in Novato where she had evacuated to. “I fear that it’s heading into those areas that lost homes and were rebuilt, and I fear they will burn again.”

The two fast-moving blazes, the Zogg fire in Shasta County and the Glass fire in Napa and Sonoma counties, are uncontained and had burned more than 67,000 acres by Monday night, prompting new evacuation orders for thousands of people as the year’s grueling wildfire season wore on.

The new burst of fires comes as the West Coast struggles to recover from one of the worst seasons on record, even with months to go until the rainy season. Wildfires this year in the West have left at least 40 people dead, destroyed more than 7,000 structures and scorched more than 5 million acres in California, Oregon and Washington. Experts have linked the devastating fire season to climate change, saying it is part of a long-term trend of more frequent and disastrous blazes in the West.

“As of right now there’s zero containment,” Jimmy Zanotelli, a public information officer with the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department, said of the fatal Zogg fire, whose cause was unknown. “We’re still seeing some fire growth and some critical fire rates of spread, so it’s been a challenge.”

In a news conference Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said a “substantial” number of structures, including wineries, had been damaged. Speaking of the history of fires in the area, he said there was “a lot of consternation in and around that region that has been hit over and over and over again.”

In wine country, residents spoke of terrifying, nighttime evacuations Sunday as the flames bore down.

In the Oakmont area of Santa Rosa, residents of Los Guilicos Village, a community of tiny homes for formerly homeless people and those suffering from mental illness and substance abuse disorders, were forced to evacuate at 9 p.m.

For many residents, it was not even the first time they had to flee a fire this year. Kristi Horn, who works at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, had to evacuate in August after a lightning siege sparked several fast-moving fires. This time, she had to pack up and leave around 5 a.m. Sunday.

“I keep joking I want to move to Florida because you still get coastal access to the beach and you have several days to plan for a hurricane,” Horn said. “For fires, you’re woken up in the middle of the night.”

Jennifer Rhodes, 68, said she had left her home in Deer Park early Sunday morning after a neighbor knocked on her door.

“I never unpacked from the last fire, because they said the next three months was fire season,” said Rhodes, a retiree. She does not yet know if her home is still standing.

A spokeswoman for Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, said the cause of the Glass fire in wine country had not been determined. But some residents reported hearing explosions just as the fire ignited, suggesting that the cause may have been propane tanks, said Michael Mann, chief executive of WineCountry Media, a tourism and e-commerce company.

Everyone in his industry, he said, was scrambling Monday to find out how much damage the fires had inflicted. “Most winery owners are trying to figure out if their properties are still there,” he said.

Meteorologists warned of more fire-prone conditions this week, after repeated heat waves and weeks of windy weather this summer. Over the weekend, the National Weather Service placed the greater Bay Area under a “red flag warning” because of dry and windy conditions and low humidity; the service extended the warning into Monday evening.

Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokesperson for Cal Fire, said that about 8,500 homes, or 12,000 people, were under evacuation orders, and that about 1,500 firefighters were battling the blazes.

As a precaution, utility company Pacific Gas and Electric said it had shut off power Sunday in portions of the North Valley and northern and central Sierra regions, affecting about 65,000 customers. Power was expected to be restored by the end of the day Monday for the majority of customers.

Gorin, the county supervisor, was among those living in the areas under evacuation orders. But Sunday night, well before the orders were issued, she saw the fire burning and started packing.

“I brought every photograph I could get my hands on,” she said, adding that she also brought with her jewelry and her computer.

“In general, people are exhausted,” said Gorin, who lives in Santa Rosa’s Oakmont neighborhood and lost her home in the 2017 fires. “They are tired of smoke. We’ve had smoke overlaying us for the last three weeks, and the skies are just beginning to clear.”

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