Ring of fires: More than a dozen wildfires force thousands to flee across Northern California

Largest fires sparked October 8 and grew rapidly thanks to whipsaw winds

This is an extended and updated version of a story that appeared in the October 12, 2017, issue.

A ring of flames closed around the Sacramento region this week, as nearly two dozen wind-whipped wildfires stampeded across Northern California and left public safety officials searching for new superlatives to describe a fearsome trend.

“We’re seeing conditions we haven’t seen before,” Chief Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said during an October 9 press conference in Mather.

Noting that fire officials made similar pronouncements when the Butte fire ravaged rural Northern California counties in the fall of 2015, Pimlott added, “I think we’ve raised the bar.”

Those words proved prescient as the death total rose to 21 known casualties Wednesday morning, a figure Pimlott described as “fluid” due to the number of missing or unaccounted for persons in a region savaged by a series of fires that sparked around the same time Sunday night. The fire chief told reporters that when the stories are told of what happened, he expects to hear of people asleep in their homes as the flames raced down in ambush.

Gov. Jerry Brown joined state and federal officials at the state Office of Emergency Services’ local command center Wednesday to weigh in on the property and lives being devoured by 22 major fires as far south as Orange County and as high north as Butte County.

“This is one of the biggest, most serious [fire events], and it’s not over,” Brown said. “That’s the way it is with a warming climate.”

Asked by a reporter about the impacts to the state’s wine industry, the governor said that California’s “$2.5 trillion economy grows even through disasters and tragedies. The machinery of the market grinds on.”

Shifting his focus to the loss of life, Brown added, “That can’t be recovered.”

The most treacherous blazes swept across a North Bay region known for its scenic wine country, well-appointed homes and farmworker communities. Speaking October 11, Pimlott warned that, before the day was over, he feared simultaneous conflagrations to the west, east and north of the Napa Valley could merge into one super-fire.

“When you look at the destruction, it’s literally like it exploded,” Pimlott said a day before that prediction. “This is just pure devastation.”

On Monday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it would provide federal funding and coordination after determining the fires “threatened such destruction as would constitute a major disaster,” an announcement stated.

Events on the ground forced state and federal officials to constantly revise their damage estimates. By Tuesday, some 2,000 homes and other structures had been destroyed. By late Wednesday morning, 170,000 acres had been torched.

The largest fire, at 42,000 acres and counting, is the Atlas fire spanning Napa and Solano counties south of Lake Berryessa. The deadliest blaze has been the Tubbs fire, which has devoured 27,000 acres between Kellogg and Calistoga in Napa County. At least nine of the deaths have been attributed to that fire. Communities in Sonoma County were also under threat from the Nuns and Pocket fires, where almost 10,000 acres had burned.

Most of the major fires were at minimal containment of 3 percent or less, Pimlott said. Because of the sharp, dry winds and what the fire chief called “smoke inversion,” air tankers were forced to play a cautious role in dousing the blazes. Pimlott said pilots couldn’t see what was beyond their windows, much less what was on the ground. But changing conditions were allowing air resources to become more aggressive.

“We have access to every available asset across the country,” Pimlott said, referring to the 73 helicopters, more than 30 air tankers, 550 fire engines and close to 8,000 firefighters in some form of deployment, as well as additional aid coming from outside of the state.

But one official after another spoke of the long road ahead in almost apocalyptic terms.

According to CoreLogic, a global property analytics company, 172,117 homes faced some level of risk from the wildfires in the Napa and Santa Rosa metropolitan areas.

Saying that law enforcement officers in Sonoma County were going door to door to pull people from their homes as the fires approached, Pimlott said it was critical that residents heeded evacuation orders so firefighters could focus on containing the flames that were nourished into giants by 50 mph winds on Sunday night.

“I’m gonna tell everybody straight up that the potential exists for peril if folks don’t get out from in front of these fires,” he said.

That message was difficult to hear Monday, when audio issues with Cal OES’ live Facebook feed drew angry-face emojis and frustrated comments, like this one from a Facebook user: “Please repeat so we can get this. Our houses are at stake!”

Cal OES acknowledged the technical difficulties, but was unable to fix the sound quality before the press conference concluded. Instead, help came from an unlikely source. As is often typical for significant press briefings, a person standing to the right of the podium translated the officials’ words into American Sign Language. That allowed Facebook user Alicia Hommel, whose profile identifies her as a resident mentor at the Indiana School for the Deaf, to summarize the interpreter’s signs into written posts on the comment thread.

Facebook user John Howard was one of several who thanked Hommel for life-hacking the glitchy broadcast. “Here we have interpretation of official comments provided by a woman who can read sign language for the deaf relayed to people whose hearing is okay,” Howard wrote. “You can’t make this stuff up.”

By Wednesday, those technical issues had been resolved. Repairs were also being made to many of the 77 cellular sites that were damaged or destroyed by the wildfires, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of Cal OES.

As for the cause of the fires, which were speculated to be connected to downed PG&E power lines, Pimlott said it was too early to speculate. “All of these fires are under investigation and it’s certainly very early in the process,” he said. Then, pointing out that 95 percent of all fires are human-caused, the fire chief added, “I will tell you that the chances that it’s lightning is probably fairly minimal.”