17 fires across 7 counties California wildfires continue to burn

- SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) - The flames that raced across California wine country left little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. House after house is 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 17 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 185 people were injured during the blazes that started Sunday night. Nearly 200 people were reported missing in Sonoma County alone.

Seventeen wildfires raged 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.

"It's literally like it exploded. These people ran out of their homes literally with minutes notice, barely with the clothes on their back," Pimlott said, adding that authorities didn't have time to give more notice. "They burned so quickly, there was not time to notify everybody."

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 in a residential neighborhood in Napa.

Their son, Mike Rippey, said he and his siblings couldn't imagine how either parent would have navigated life if just one had survived the flames.

"We knew there's no way they would ever be happy, whoever was the last one. So they went together, and that's the way it worked," he said stoically.

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.

About 3,200 people were staying in 28 shelters across Napa and Sonoma counties.

"I don't know how long I'm going to be here, or what's happening at home," said Santa Rosa evacuee Kathy Ruiz, who had found her way to a center at Sonoma County Fairgrounds. "That's what I'm starting to think about now, am I going to have a home to go back to?"

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 had 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.

A fire in northeastern Orange County threatened thousands of homes Monday, turned the sky over Disneyland a hazy orange and rained ash on neighborhoods.

By Tuesday evening, however, winds had died and temperatures were cooler. Most evacuations were lifted in Anaheim, Orange and Tustin, with just a few roads still off-limits.

Crews managed to stop the fire from growing and had surrounded more than a quarter of the fire area.

However, fire engines were still protecting neighborhoods around the clock.

"We can't afford to let one spark, one ember get into any of these homes," Orange County fire Capt. Larry Kurtz said.

Some of the largest blazes in Northern California were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. The fires 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 of the people reported missing were safe but simply could not 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 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.

 

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) - Jose Garnica worked for more than two decades to build up his dream home that was reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes by the deadly firestorm striking Northern California.

Garnica, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico over 20 years ago, had finally decided he could afford to upgrade parts of his Santa Rosa house after building a stable career with the local garbage company and saving nearly everything he and his wife earned.

Over the past two years, he replaced the siding and installed a new air conditioner, stainless steel appliances and new flooring. He bought a new 60-inch (1.5-meter) television. On Saturday, the 44-year-old got an estimate to replace the fence, one of the last items on his list.

But at 3:30 a.m. Monday, he watched his house become one of the more than 2,000 homes and businesses destroyed by the series of blazes across the region that had killed at least 17 people.

"You feel helpless," he said Tuesday. "There's nothing you can do. Everything, your whole life, goes through your mind in a minute. Everything you had done. I left all my family behind in Mexico to get a better life. Finally we were just coming to the comfort level, and this happens."

Garnica tried to save the home with a garden hose. He and a neighbor tried to cut open the neighbor's above-ground pool, hoping the water would protect their homes. In 15 minutes, the entire neighborhood caught fire, he said.

"If I knew this was going to happen, maybe those 45 minutes I spent trying to put the fire down, I should've just grabbed all the belongings," Garnica said. "But I didn't think it was going to happen."

Those destructive flames raced across the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties and the coastal beauty of Mendocino further north, leaving little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. Whole neighborhoods are gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark sites that were once family homes.

"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."

In some torched neighborhoods, fire hydrants still had hoses attached, apparently abandoned by firefighters who had to flee.

The wildfires already rank among the deadliest in California history, and officials expected the death toll to increase as the scope of destruction becomes clear. At least 185 people were injured during the blazes that cropped up Sunday night. Nearly 200 people were reported missing in Sonoma County alone.

David Leal, 55, and his wife and stepson salvaged a few decorative items from their Santa Rosa home, including a wind chime, tiles from the backsplash in the kitchen, a decorative sun and a cross.

"Our plan is to keep those things, and when we rebuild, they'll be mementos of what we've lived through, and of, just, resilience," Leal said. "It's hard not to get emotional.

In the meantime, Leal got a post office box so the family can get mail, a new laptop and some clothes. They're living out of their two vehicles for now.

"We'll be back home again sooner than later, and with our chins held high," he said, choking back tears. "And hopefully we'll be amongst our neighbors and friends as they do the same."

Leal, a U.S. Navy veteran, evacuated with his family, two dogs and cat to nearby Petaluma late Sunday after seeing fierce, hot winds and flames whipping in the distance.

"We didn't have time to think about what to grab. We grabbed what we saw," he said. He got his external hard drive, which was lying out, but left his laptop.

Garnica also hung onto hope, saying he was not back at square one.

"I came into the States with nothing. I didn't have anything," Garnica said. "I think I'm better off than how I came in. At least I got a job. I got a family. I'm healthy."

 

NAPA, Calif. (AP) - Metal racks sagging with dozens of blackened bottles were among the smoldering remains of a Napa Valley winery destroyed by wildfires that raced through a region famous for its fine food and drink.

The bottles were empty, sucked dry of wine. Some wine barrels were intact, as well as a swimming pool and chairs, but otherwise, the Signorello Estate winery structure was gone.

Throughout Northern California's wine country, vintners able to get to property surveyed the damage to vineyards, tasting rooms and storage while others had to wait patiently for flames to die down.

At the Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma County, workers were not sure the grapes above the winery survived a second night of fires that have destroyed at least two wineries and damaged more.

"We haven't been able to go up and assess the vine damage," said Katie Bundschu, vice president of sales. "We're in the process of salvaging what we can."

Speedy, wind-driven wildfires that started Sunday came as workers in Napa and Sonoma counties were picking and processing ripe grapes to make chardonnay, merlot and other wines that have made the region a global hot spot. Millions of locals and out-of-staters flock to the counties every year to sample wine, sit in mud baths and soak in the region's natural beauty.

At least five wineries belonging to members have had "complete losses" in facilities, with another nine reporting some damage, said Michael Honig, board chairman of the Napa Valley Vintners trade association and president of Honig Vineyard & Winery. He said the group has not heard from all members, especially those in the most vulnerable parts of the valley.

"That's been the biggest problem - the information - you can't access these areas," he said. "We don't have a good idea of how the vineyards have been impacted."

He said the good news is that most of the valley had picked 90 percent of the crop for 2017. Most of the remaining fruit, he said, are thicker-skinned cabernet sauvignon grapes that won't be affected by smoke.

Bundschu, a sixth-generation vintner, recounted a scary Monday night in which the flames licked at the perimeter of the winery but were beaten back by firefighters. A century-old redwood barn and her grandmother's 1919 home were spared. Gundlach Bundschu is the oldest family-run winery in California, started in 1858.

She was eager to dispel reports that the winery had been destroyed, as was Nicholson Ranch winery, also in Sonoma County, which posted on Facebook that news of its demise was premature.

"The winery was in the path of the fire but escaped being engulfed by the flames. We have some damage to fix. The wine is secure in our cellars. We are cleaning up and hoping to have the power back on this week," it said.

Even wineries that were destroyed may survive, including the Signorello Estate winery. The winery building was gone, but its vineyard looked untouched by flames.

Spokeswoman Charlotte Milan said she could only confirm damage to the winery and a residence, explaining that workers had not gone on site. She said the estate's 2015 reds and 2016 whites were stored off-site.

Tourism officials say that wine country is open for business.

Sara Brooks, chairwoman of the Visit Napa Valley Board of Directors and general manager of the historic Napa River Inn, said she has had some cancellations, but expects tourism to bounce back as it did after the 2014 Napa earthquake.

Honig said the next few days might not be the best time to sample wines, but he wants people to visit in a week or two. He is convinced the Napa brand will survive.

"We've suffered with pests, fires, drought," he said. "We made it through Prohibition. This is a short-term setback."

___

Knickmeyer reported from Sonoma, California. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Olga R. Rodriguez, Sudhin Thanawala, Juliet Williams and Andrew Dalton in San Francisco and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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