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Wildfires bring death and destruction to California’s wine country

10 October 2017 6:35 AM
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This fire season is the deadliest in a decade, forcing 20,000 people to flee, and could spell economic doom for the world-famous region’s winemakers

Details of those deaths were not immediately available from state or local officials. But KGO-TV in San Francisco, citing unnamed California Highway Patrol sources, described one victim as a blind, elderly woman found in the driveway of her home in Santa Rosa, a town in Sonoma County.

The death toll could climb higher, said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for the governor’s Office of Emergency Services. More than 100 people were treated for fire-related injuries such as burns and smoke inhalation, CNN reported.

The toll marks a 10-year record for civilian wildfire fatalities in the state, dating back to 14 who lost their lives in a series of blazes that swept San Diego County and other parts of Southern California in October 2007, according to CalFire spokeswoman Janet Upton.

Ten people died in August 2008 in the Iron Alps Complex Fire in northern California’s Trinity County, including a crew of nine contract firefighters from Oregon killed in a helicopter crash.

On Monday, thousands of firefighters battled wind gusts of more than 80km/h, which have rapidly spread 15 separate wildfires across about 73,000 acres in northern California since erupting late on Sunday night, according to CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

About 1,500 homes and commercial buildings have been destroyed throughout the region, CalFire director Ken Pimlott told reporters.

Two hospitals were forced to evacuate in Sonoma County, state officials said.

A separate wildfire on Monday torched at least half a dozen homes in the affluent Anaheim Hills neighbourhood of Southern California’s Orange County, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents, authorities said.

That blaze erupted along a freeway offramp and spread quickly in gusty winds to scorch about 5,000 acres in a matter of hours, fire officials said.

Still, the situation there paled in comparison to one of the fiercer blazes in northern California, the so-called Tubbs fire, which charred about 27,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties, an area world-famous for its vineyards.

One evacuee, John van Dyke, recalled standing in his pajamas near the 101 Freeway in Santa Rosa, watching a hillside in flames, when police pounded on his door in the mobile home park, telling him to flee.

"When I got in the car to leave, a whole section of the mobile park was in flames," he said. "It scared the hell out of me."

At least 5,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders in Santa Rosa alone, accounting for about a quarter of the region’s residents displaced by fires.

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