Gusty winds fan California wildfires, force more evacuations
SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Rising winds fanned the Northern California wildfires again Saturday, forcing hundreds more people to flee from their homes in the state’s fabled wine country and destroying more buildings.
The winds kicked up several hours before dawn and pushed flames into the hills on the edge of Sonoma, a town of 11,000. An unknown number of structures burned down in a rural area, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
About 400 homes were evacuated as the fires threated Sonoma and a portion of Santa Rosa that includes a retirement community that evacuated earlier this week, he said.
Winds gusting up to 40 mph were expected to continue throughout the day and into the evening.
On Friday, firefighters reported their first progress in containing some of the blazes, but the renewed strength of the winds was “testing the work that we accomplished,” Berlant said.
The blazes have left at least 35 people dead and 5,700 homes and businesses destroyed, making them the deadliest and most destructive series of wildfires California has ever seen.
Also Friday, a lucky few of the nearly 100,000 people who have fled from their homes got to return, and examples of charity were everywhere, along with a sign that began popping up in more and more places: “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”
Astonishing video released from the fire’s hellish first night showed the courage of the deputies and firefighters working amid the flames.
“Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!” an unidentified Sonoma County deputy can be heard yelling in the body-camera video released by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The footage was recorded as he urged hesitant drivers to speed out of a town that was being devoured by flames.
The deputy is shown lifting a disabled woman out of her wheelchair and into an SUV to rush her out of town. And he drives through walls of flame looking for more people to help.
“And that’s just one person,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said at a news conference.
At an RV evacuation site at Sonoma Raceway, evacuees counted their blessings, trying not to think about what they had lost and what they might yet lose.
The mood at sunset Friday was upbeat, even cheerful, as children and dogs played in the twilight. More than 100 campers were parked by the side of a highway. There were portable bathrooms and tables groaning from donated water bottles, stuffed animals and food.
Ron Vitt, 75, and Ellen Brantley, 65, sat in chairs watching the cars go by, a small table between them holding drinks: gin with cocktail onions for him and gin with lime for her. They joked as their dog bounced about happily.
“There is a sun that’s going to set. There’s a dog who is really happy,” Vitt said. “So you got to bring some sanity into this whole thing.”
At Sonoma Valley High School, the parking lot was packed with cars and vans. Middle school Principal Will Deeths supervised volunteers and made sure people had plenty of water and a filter mask. He said more than 100 people spent Thursday night at the school, which has been converted into a shelter.
He said the community response has been phenomenal. Hairdressers from Oakland came to fix people’s hair and a young man played guitar to entertain families, he said. They even had a birthday party for a 5-year-old boy, complete with a donated cake from a local bakery.
“Two days ago we were in need of size 5 diapers,” he said. “Someone put it on Facebook and within an hour, four or five cars pulled up, two or three boxes. Boom, boom, boom, here you go.”
In all, 17 large fires still burned across the northern part of the state, with more than 9,000 firefighters attacking the flames using air tankers, helicopters and more than 1,000 fire engines.
“The emergency is not over, and we continue to work at it, but we are seeing some great progress,” said the state’s emergency operations director, Mark Ghilarducci.
Over the past 24 hours, crews arrived from Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, North and South Carolina, Oregon and Arizona. Other teams came from as far away as Canada and Australia.
The influx of outside help offered critical relief to firefighters who have been working with little rest since the blazes started.
“It’s like pulling teeth to get firefighters and law enforcement to disengage from what they are doing out there,” said Barry Biermann, Napa chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “They are truly passionate about what they are doing to help the public, but resources are coming in. That’s why you are seeing the progress we’re making.”
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