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California fires: 23 killed, hundreds missing as flames spread

Alarming conditions again face firefighters trying to contain deadly blazes that have ravaged tens of thousands of acres in Northern California as winds — somewhat gusty Thursday but probably growing even stronger by the weekend — threaten more devastation.

Fires have ravaged Northern California’s wine country since Sunday night, killing at least 23 people and destroying at least 3,500 structures, authorities said.

At least 285 people are reported missing in Sonoma County alone, where a fire wiped out parts of Santa Rosa, a city of about 175,000 people roughly 50 miles northwest of San Francisco.

Sleep-deprived, soot-covered firefighters are working to contain the wildfires, even as some of their own homes have been hit.

“This is not easy for anybody. We have firefighters who’ve either lost their homes or who have family members who have lost their homes,” said Jonathan Cox, battalion chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Most of Northern California’s fires were fanned by heavy winds — gusts of more than 70 mph — Sunday night. Winds aren’t expected to be as strong in the coming days, but forecasters warned that speeds of 20 to 30 mph Thursday and even stronger later on — gusts approaching 60 mph on Friday night — could help flames spread even more.

Residents and business owners alike have been affected, with schools canceled for the rest of the week in Napa County, and some flight cancellations at San Francisco International Airport, in part because of smoke.

At least 39 flights were canceled Thursday and 82 were canceled Wednesday, partly because of reduced visibility, airport spokesman Doug Yakel said. More than 2,800 flights — departures and arrivals — were scheduled Thursday, the airport’s website says.

Latest developments

• Wildfires have burned nearly 170,000 acres throughout the state. The largest fires were in Northern California’s Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, littering the landscape with charred rubble and clouds of smoke.

• Of the 23 people who have died since Sunday night, 13 were killed in the Tubbs wildfire in Sonoma County, officials said. The Tubbs fire, one of 22 blazes in the state, is the fifth-deadliest in recorded California history, according to the Cal Fire website.

How to help the victims of the California wildfires

• More than 20,000 people had been ordered to evacuate as of Wednesday, authorities said.

• Almost 8,000 firefighters are trying to contain the blazes, officials said Wednesday. Equipment being used includes 550 firetrucks — with at least 170 from out of state — 73 helicopters and more than 30 planes.

• Wind isn’t the only problem facing firefighters. Rain isn’t expected for days. “Low humidity and gusty northerly winds will combine with dry fuels to produce critical fire weather conditions,” the National Weather Service said.

• Fires have knocked out power to about 49,000 utility customers, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokeswoman Fiona Chan said.

• Cell phone service also has been spotty, because the fires put dozens of cell phone towers out of commission in the region, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said.

‘I want to cry’

Pierre Birebent has made wine at Signorello Estate just north of the city of Napa for 20 years. One of the fires gutted buildings at the popular winery, leaving charred debris scattered across its landscape.

“I want to cry. I’m trying not to,” Birebent said.

He pointed at piles of ash and rubble. “This was my file cabinet. The door was here. … There’s nothing left,” he said.

A few steps away, the winery’s barrel room is intact, along with its vintages from last year.

Thousands of people have been ordered to evacuate, including the Napa County city of Calistoga and parts of the Sonoma County city of Geyserville.

Authorities urged Napa residents to pack “ready-to-go bags” with documents and medication in case they need to evacuate quickly.

“There are firefighters who’ve been out there since Sunday night, just working tirelessly,” Cox said. “Every firefighter on the fire line is very conscious of the anticipated wind event for the area, and so they’re not letting their guard down.”

A Santa Rosa-area firefighter, Fred Leuenberger, said his crew has been fighting fires with few breaks since Sunday night.

“We have slept off and on throughout the incident in engines, pickups, hose beds, etc. (Wednesday) night we finally got guys a decent night’s sleep in a fire station,” said Leuenberger, who works for the Rincon Valley Fire District, on Thursday morning.

“There have been few breaks, just enough to get home and check on family.”

Firefighter’s home destroyed

The fires have been fast and ruthless, shifting direction without much notice.

Heather and Robert Nappi thought they were safe in their Santa Rosa neighborhood of Coffey Park. A firefighter for the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District, Robert Nappi was fighting the blazes on the other side of Highway 101.

Then the fire suddenly changed direction, and Nappi warned his wife to flee. She hurriedly evacuated, along with their 2-year-old daughter and the family cat.

“I only grabbed a couple pieces of clothing just to get us through the night,” Heather Nappi said Wednesday night. “I thought we would be back the next day. … I had no clue that it was going to take our house.”

Coffey Park is now blackened with debris and ash. The fire swallowed everything that wasn’t steel, concrete or brick. At some properties, all that remains are mangled washers, dryers and water heaters.

The Nappis no longer have a home in the neighborhood where they have lived for three years.

“It was a wonderful home to us,” Heather Nappi said. “We had our daughter there. We decorated our nursery there. It’s got a lot of memories in it for the short amount of time that we’ve been there.”

When Nappi fled, she forgot her wedding ring.

As a firefighter, her husband has recovered lost items for others, she said. She hopes he can find her ring, too.

Fear for missing father

Days after neighborhoods first became threatened, some residents are unaccounted for. Authorities said they believe communications difficulties are preventing those reported missing from checking in with relatives.

Derek Southard has not heard from his father, Daniel, 71, since Sunday. The two live in Santa Rosa, but the son was at a wedding Sunday in Monterey when the fire hit their neighborhood.

“I had been texting him that day at the wedding. I told him I’ll call him that night. And then he never called me back,” Southard said.

“He texted me at midnight and asked if I was having fun at the wedding. I guess the fire came an hour or two after that.”

The neighborhood was still closed off Monday when Southard returned to Santa Rosa. The sheriff checked on his house and told him it was burned to the ground and his father’s car was melted in the driveway.

“I’ve still got my fingers crossed that he made it out somehow,” he wrote on Facebook.

His next-door neighbors told him they barely got out. In their dash to escape, they were not able to knock on his father’s door and notify him.

His father had trouble sleeping and normally used sleeping pills.

Maybe he did not hear neighbors honking, warning people to escape, Southard said.