High winds threaten progress against California wildfires; state leaders brief reporters
SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Rising winds fanned the California wildfires again Saturday, forcing hundreds more people to flee from their homes in the state's fabled wine country and threatening to undo the efforts of crews who have spent days trying to corral the flames behind firebreaks.
On Friday afternoon, California Gov. Jerry Brown provided an update on the wildfires raging across the state. Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris addressed federal relief efforts.
Just a day after firefighters reported making significant progress, the winds kicked up and pushed flames into the hills at the edge of Sonoma, a town of 11,000. About 400 homes were evacuated in Sonoma and a portion of Santa Rosa that included a retirement community that evacuated earlier this week, authorities said.
"Things went to hell last night," said Dean Vincent Bordigioni, winemaker and proprietor at the Annadel Estate Winery, who awoke at 3 a.m. to see flames erupting over the ridge above his property. "They've got a good fight going on."
Nearly a week after the blazes began, the zone containing scattered fires had swollen to an area as wide as 100 miles. The flames have left at least 35 people dead and destroyed at least 5,700 homes and businesses, making them the deadliest and most destructive group of wildfires California has ever seen.
On Saturday, an unknown number of additional structures burned down in a rural area, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Judy Guttridge, who was evacuating for the second time this week, said her daughter saw flames advancing over the side of a hill around the same time Bordigioni did and told the family to get out.
"I have good insurance, everything," she said. "All the kids, grandkids, great-grandkids are fine. I'm OK with that."
Firefighters spent much of the last week digging defense lines to keep the flames from spreading. On Friday, they tried to fortify the edge of Sonoma using bulldozers and other heavy equipment.
But if winds push the flames over that barrier, neighborhoods including some of the town's costliest homes stand in the path, along with a historic central plaza built centuries ago when the area was under Spanish rule.
The renewed strength of the winds was "testing the work that we accomplished," Berlant said. The greatest risk was that winds would blow embers across the firebreaks and ignite new blazes.
By early afternoon, state fire officials said they had halted the fire's advance into the city of Sonoma. But winds gusting up to 40 mph were expected to continue throughout the day and into the evening.
The latest estimates showed that about 100,000 people were under evacuation orders as the fires burned for a sixth day. Some people who have been evacuated all week demanded to get back into their homes.
Douglas and Marian Taylor stood outside their apartment complex Saturday in Santa Rosa with their two dogs and a sign that said "End evacuation now."
Their building was unharmed at the edge of the evacuation zone with a police barricade set up across the street. The couple said they are spending about $300 per day to rent a motel and eat out, and they want to return home because the fire does not appear to threaten their home.
At an evacuation center at the fairgrounds in the Sonoma County city of Petaluma, volunteers sifted through mounds of donated baby wipes, diapers, pillows, shoes and clothing.
Randy Chiado and his wife, Barbara, evacuated Monday from the Oakmont section of Santa Rosa. They stayed for several days with a friend in Santa Rosa but left Saturday when flames approached again and sought refuge at the fairgrounds.
"After so many times of 'It's coming, get ready, it's coming, get ready,' it just gets nerve-wracking," Barbara Chiado said. Life away from home has been difficult and dangerous.
Randy Chiado said a man who may have suspected he was a looter tried to punch him through his car window and yelled for a friend to get a gun when the Chiados turned onto a residential street after they evacuated their home. He said he was able to push the man off and drive away.
The couple would be spending the night with other evacuees in a room set up with cots. "It's like jail," he said.
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 Friday at a news conference.
More than a dozen fires broke out nearly simultaneously on Oct. 8 and people had little time to escape. Most of the deaths were elderly people.
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.
Associated Press writers Daisy Nguyen and Andrew Dalton in San Francisco, Paul Elias in Sonoma and Olga R. Rodriguez and Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz also contributed to this report.