Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

California Wildfires Leave Chimneys, Charred Appliances In Their Wake

The burned remains of a car sits in the driveway of a home near the Silverado Country Club and Resort Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017, Napa, Calif.
Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press
The burned remains of a car sits in the driveway of a home near the Silverado Country Club and Resort Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017, Napa, Calif.
Ashes And Stinging Smoke Mark Devastation In Wine Country
Wildfires Ravage Northern California With Shocking Speed GUEST: Heather Williams, spokeswoman, Cal Fire

I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Our top story, for domestic today. Yesterday's fierce winds whipped 15 fires burning out of control in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. The death toll has risen to 13 in Northern California. An additional 150 people have been reported missing. At least 100 people have been injured and 1500 homes and businesses destroyed. The canyon 2 fire in Anaheim Hills has consumed up to 7000 acres, destroyed 24 structures and forced mass evacuations. Joining me is Heather Williams a spokesperson with Cal fire in Sacramento. Heather, welcome to the program.Thank You.Overnight have the winds become calmer?Yes. That really helped our firefighters slow the progress of the buyers.Have they increased their control on any of these blazes?On a few. The biggest part is that we have been able to hold that acreage. We did not see much increase in acreage overnight. A few of the fires, the containment did go up.What does the acreage stand out now? That consumed?The fires in Sonoma and Napa, they are both at 0% containment. They were hold -- held at 27,000 acres. In Yuba County, the cascade fire that is 16% containment. That is great. The good news on the about a -- on the Nevada County area is up to 23 first -- 23% contained.We are in unified command with Orange County, Orange County and the city of orange as well.There are still people being evacuated? Or any of these evacuations going to be lifted?They are still in place. The evaluation is underway. There working to see -- they are working to see what the conditions are. We still have evacuations in place but they are always evaluating the situation so we can get people home.Do we know what caused any of these fires?We do not. This is still under investigation.I have seen report that these two fire events are stretching resources. Is that the case?Resources continue to pour in. With 17 large fires, competition can occur. Our firefighters have been working long and hard. We have the National Guard and local partners helping us. We have really been able to have them send us resources. That is the benefit of our large mutual age.Do you know how many San Diego resources are involved?I don't. I do know that they have sent resources and we have had northern California by the Oregon border come here as well. We appreciate our local partners.Is there a figure on how many firefighters are involved up north XNot at this time --?Not at this time. I know each fire has many firefighters engaged. Roughly 5000 in total.We have seen reports that authorities have been focusing on getting people to safety. This is mostly in northern California. If that means abandoning homes to the fire, is that the strategy right nowThat was the strategy Sunday night. They all started fires -- on fire Sunday night. Firefighters stepped in and worked alongside the police department and their priority was to get people out. Now the winds have died out. There working diligently to increase containment.Any estimated time of containment?Not at this time. They are trying to get these in containment. It will be a long process. We hope to see increases over the next couple days.A red flag warning ended in San Diego this morning with a minor fire here. San Diego is always on guard during October. Is there any indication we are in for additional Highwinds or Santa Ana conditions?It is hard to predict whether. We knew this was coming and we were able to increase staffing. Weather changes. It is very unpredictable. The best thing we can do is asked the public to be diligent. Even when conditions are low to moderate, we need people to be careful.I have been speaking with Heather Williams with Cal fire. Thank you for your time.Thank You.

The flames that raced across California wine country left little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. House after house was gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark sites that were once family homes.

The wildfires burned so hot that windows and tire rims melted off cars, leaving many vehicles resting on their steel axles. In one driveway, the glass backboard of a basketball hoop melted, dripped and solidified like a mangled icicle.

Newly homeless residents of Northern California took stock of their shattered lives Tuesday while the blazes that have killed at least 15 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses kept burning. Hundreds more firefighters joined the battle against the uncontained flames.


"This is just pure devastation, and it's going to take us a while to get out and comb through all of this," said Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He said the state had "several days of fire weather conditions to come."

The wildfires already rank among the five deadliest in California history, and officials expected the death toll to increase as the scope of destruction becomes clear. At least 100 people were injured during the blazes that started Sunday night. Nearly 200 people were reported missing in Sonoma County alone.

Seventeen wildfires continued to rage Tuesday across parts of seven counties. Fire crews and other resources were being rushed in from other parts of the state and Nevada.

More than 240 members of the California National Guard helped ferry fuel to first responders because so many gas stations were without power. Guard members were also helping with medical evacuations and security at evacuation centers, said Maj. Gen. David Baldwin.

In addition to knocking out electricity, the blazes damaged or destroyed 77 cellular sites, disrupting communication services that officials were rushing to restore, said Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci.


The fires that started Sunday night moved so quickly that thousands of people were forced to flee with only a few minutes of warning. Some did not get out in time. "They burned so quickly, there was not time to notify everybody. These fires came down in the neighborhoods before people realized the fires were occurring in many cases. It was very difficult," Pimlott said.

Among the victims were 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his wife, Sara, who was 98. The couple was married for 75 years and lived at the Silverado Resort in Napa. "The only thing worse would have been if one survived without the other," their granddaughter, Ruby Gibney told Oakland television station KTVU.

A thick, smoky haze cloaked much of Napa and Sonoma counties, where neighborhoods hit by the fires were completely leveled. Authorities warned residents not to return to their houses for safety reasons, citing the risk of exposed electrical and gas lines and unstable structures including trees. But many found it hard to stay away.

In the Santa Rosa suburb known as Coffey Park, Robyn Pellegrini let out a cry of grief as she approached the smoldering ruins of the duplex she shared with her husband and their 6-year-old son. Daniel Pellegrini held his wife before they went searching for something they could salvage for their child.

With bare hands, they sifted through the remains of the exterior wall, which had collapsed into dust inside the house and covered all the other debris in their boy's room. They found a stuffed animal — charred but still recognizable as a turtle. Robyn Pellegrini let out joyful gasps when they found pieces of his rock collection.

A young boy across the street, whose home was spared, brought over one of his own stuffed animals to share. "You lose all your photos," said Tony Pellegrini, Daniel's father. "You feel like you lost a part of your life."

Officials hoped cooler weather and lighter winds would help crews get a handle on the fires.

"The weather has been working in our favor, but it doesn't mean it will stay that way," said Brad Alexander, a spokesman of the governor's Office of Emergency Services.

In Washington, President Donald Trump said he spoke with Gov. Jerry Brown to "let him know that the federal government will stand with the people of California. And we will be there for you in this time of terrible tragedy and need."

The government declared a disaster, which should give the state help putting out the flames.

More than 400 miles away from the wine-making region, flames imperiled parts of Southern California, too. Thousands of people were displaced by a wildfire that destroyed or damaged 24 structures, including homes. Hot, dry Santa Ana winds swept fire along brushy outskirts of Orange County suburbs and equestrian properties southeast of Los Angeles. More than a dozen schools were closed.

The blaze, which disrupted major commuter routes, spread over nearly a dozen square miles in less than 24 hours as a squadron of helicopters and airplanes bombarded it with water and retardant.

At the northern end of the state, some of the largest blazes were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. They sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) away.

Sonoma County established a hotline to help families looking for missing loved ones. It's possible that many or most of the people reported missing are safe but simply cannot be reached because of the widespread loss of cellphone service and other communications.

Much of the damage was in Santa Rosa, a far larger and more developed city than usually finds itself at the mercy of a wildfire. The city is home to 175,000 people, including both the wine-country wealthy and the working class.

It was unusual for so many fires to take off at the same time. Other than the windy conditions that helped drive them all, there was no known connection between the blazes, and authorities have not cited a cause for any of them.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.