Cooler weather, lighter winds make Cal Fire crews hopeful about fighting 17 wildfires

- By JONATHAN J. COOPER and ELLEN KNICKMEYER

Newly homeless residents of California wine country awoke to shattered lives Tuesday, a day after wildfires killed at least 15 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses. Hundreds more firefighters joined the battle against the blazes, which were still completely uncontained. And authorities began to identify the dead, including a 100-year-old man and his 98-year-old wife who died in their burning home.

A thick, smoky haze cloaked much of Napa and Sonoma counties, where neighborhoods hit by the fires were completely leveled. In the Santa Rosa suburb known as Coffey Park, house after house was gone with only brick chimneys still standing. The flames burned so hot that windows and tire rims melted off cars, leaving many parked vehicles sitting on their steel axles. The only recognizable remnants at many homes were charred washing machines and dryers.

Authorities hoped cooler weather and lighter winds would help crews get a handle on 17 separate fires, which are among the deadliest in California history.

"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.

The extra firefighters came from throughout California and Nevada. Extra law enforcement officers will help with evacuations and guard against looting, Alexander said.

At least 100 people have been injured and 100 were missing in Sonoma County alone, authorities said.

The fires that started Sunday night moved so quickly that thousands of people were forced to flee with only a few minutes of warning, and some did not get out in time. Among the victims were Charles and Sara Rippey, who were 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.

More than 400 miles away, 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, and an army of firefighters grew to 1,100 by Tuesday morning.

At the northern end of the state, residents who gathered at emergency shelters and grocery stores said they were shocked by the speed and ferocity of the flames. They recalled all the possessions that were lost.

"All that good stuff, I'm never going to see it again," said Jeff Okrepkie, who fled his neighborhood in Santa Rosa knowing it was probably the last time he would see his home of the past five years standing.

His worst fears were confirmed Monday, when a friend sent him a photo of what was left: a smoldering heap of burnt metal and debris.

Some of the largest blazes burning over a 200-mile region 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.

Former San Francisco Giants pitcher Noah Lowry, who now runs an outdoor sporting goods store in Santa Rosa, was forced to flee with his wife, two daughters and a son just over 2 weeks old.

"I can't shake hearing people scream in terror as the flames barreled down on us," Lowry said.

In neighborhood after neighborhood, all that remains are the smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke from a day of utter devastation.

His family and another evacuating with them tried to take U.S. 101 to evacuate but found it blocked by flames, and had to take country roads to get to the family friends who took them in.

Driving around the area remained difficult Tuesday with many road closures and intense traffic on roads that remained open.

Highway 12, which winds through the heart of wine country, was rendered unusable by the flames.

The flames forced authorities to focus primarily on getting people out safely, even if it meant abandoning structures to the fire.

October has generally been the most destructive time of year for California wildfires. But it was unusual for 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 no cause has been released for any of them.

   ------

Knickmeyer reported from Sonoma, California. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Olga R. Rodriguez, Sudhin Thanawala and Juliet Williams in San Francisco and John Antczak and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.
 

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