Environment & Science

Entire Northern California town ordered to evacuate due to deadly wildfires

An aerial image from Tuesday shows a neighborhood that was destroyed by an intense and fast-moving wildfire in Santa Rosa, Calif., this week. Newly homeless residents of California wine country are beginning to get details about the damages.
An aerial image from Tuesday shows a neighborhood that was destroyed by an intense and fast-moving wildfire in Santa Rosa, Calif., this week. Newly homeless residents of California wine country are beginning to get details about the damages.
Nick Giblin/AP

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Authorities are ordering all residents of the Northern California town of Calistoga to evacuate, saying "conditions have worsened." The Napa County Sheriff's Office said in an alert sent via cellphone and email that residents needed to leave by 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Earlier, officials went through the town of 5,000 people, knocking on doors to warn about 2,000 of them to leave.

Dangerous gusty winds and low moisture were forecast to reach the region Wednesday afternoon, fanning already raging wildfires.

In neighboring Sonoma County, authorities issued an evacuation advisory for the northern part of the town of Sonoma and the community of Boyes Hot Springs. By then, lines of cars were already fleeing the community.

The 22 wildfires that have burned more than 115,000 acres in California since Sunday have now been blamed for 21 deaths. The fast-moving blazes have destroyed at least 3,500 buildings, many of them in the wine country region of Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties.

At least two of the fires have burned more than 25,000 acres, propelled by strong winds Sunday night. Conditions eased somewhat on Tuesday — but the National Weather Service says high winds could return to the area beginning late Wednesday night, with gusts over 50 mph.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano told the Associated Press the number of missing-persons reports surpassed 600, up from about 200 a day earlier.

The intense fires are being described as unlike anything fire officials recall seeing in the area.

"One of the fires moved more than 16 miles in less than than six hours," says Jonathan Cox, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, "all the way from the Napa Valley over to Santa Rosa. Jumped a six-lane highway, and was indiscriminate in its destruction of residential and commercial structures."

Speaking to NPR's David Greene, Cox said, "Late season fires are always difficult, because you're contending with very dry fuel moistures. And along with that, you have the wind event that came through on Sunday through Northern California. For some perspective, it was 50 to 70 mile an hour winds that were were that were in the fire area."

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Describing the fight against a multidimensional event, Cox laid out firefighters' priorities: "To protect people's lives and get them out of harm's way; to protect the structures; and also to build containment lines where we do have the opportunities of engagement."

The McClellan Reload Base, an airstrip that's used to support aerial firefighting efforts, "pumped over 266,000 gallons of fire retardant Monday. Shattering the previous record," says Cal Fire — the shortened name for the state of Forestry and Fire Protection agency.

Here's a rundown of some of the largest fires, as of Wednesday: In Sonoma and Napa counties, the Tubbs fire is at 28,000 acres with no containment level cited. In Napa and Solano counties, the Atlas fire is at 42,349 acres and is only 3 percent contained. In Mendecino County, the Redwood Complex fire is at 29,500 acres and is at 5 percent containment. In Yuba County, the Cascade fire is at 12,349 acres and is 20 percent contained.

As of Tuesday evening, Pacific Gas and Electric Company said that some 75,000 customers were without power, including 50,000 in Santa Rosa and 15,000 in the Napa area. In some cases, the utility has purposefully cut power to prevent lines from endangering first responders. It also cut gas service to more than 44,000 customers, due to the quick-spreading fires.

Officials are telling residents who are under mandatory evacuation orders to stay away until an all-clear order is given. In Santa Rosa, which saw neighborhoods and swaths of land overrun with fire, a curfew remains in effect from 6:45 p.m. to 7:15 a.m.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared an emergency in eight counties — Napa, Sonoma, Yuba, Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada and Orange. President Trump has issued a major disaster declaration; the Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing federal disaster assistance to California to bolster state, tribal, and local recovery efforts as the state tries to cope with the large and intense fires.

The fires have affected thousands of people, forcing evacuation orders for more than 20,000 residents and obliterating homes — in some cases leaving structures on one side of the street intact, while reducing those on the other side to heaps of ash and rubble.

Among those who lost their homes in Santa Rosa: Paula McCallister, who had just moved to the area along with her husband, less than a year ago. They're safe — but as seen in photos McCallister shared on Facebook, fire destroyed their house. Her husband snapped the pictures after walking two miles to check on their house, beyond security barricades.

McCallister tells NPR's Morning Edition that the posted the images in part because it's been hard to find details about damage in specific neighborhoods.

"They're not reporting anything. They're not telling us, your street from here to here is gone," McCallister said. "And so I wanted all my neighbors that know me on Facebook to see what happened, and what was gone and what wasn't gone. So that they have some kind of idea what to do next."

McCallister said that some of those neighbors are the reason she and her husband were able to grab necessities and get out. She says they fled their new house after neighbors walked the streets and knocked on doors, telling people the fire was coming.

This story has been updated.