SANTA ROSA, Calif. – A swarm of fires supercharged by powerful winds ripped through several northern California counties on Monday, killing at least 10 people, injuring dozens of others, destroying more than 1,500 homes and businesses and reducing prominent wineries to ash.
Starting in the middle of the night, the fires hopscotched across neighborhoods, raced across fields and jumped freeways. Wind gusts up to 70 mph pushed walls of flames nearly 100 feet high, throwing embers ahead into strip malls and subdivisions. Many people who fled the surge had enough time to grab car keys and perhaps a pet, but not much more.
And some didn't get out. Sonoma County sheriff's officials said seven people had died in that county. Two people died in a blaze in Napa, state fire officials said. A 10th person was killed in Mendocino County, and sheriff's Capt. Gregory Van Patten said that number could rise.
Facing one of the most damaging series of blazes in modern California history — fires that left thousands of evacuees in scores of emergency shelters and parts of the wine industry potentially crippled — Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Napa and Sonoma counties as well as for Yuba County. The move will make it easier for local and state officials to secure government aid.
The blazes blackened more than 65,000 acres and blanketed much of the Bay Area in cough-inducing smoke.
More than 100 people were treated for injuries, including burns and smoke inhalation, at hospitals in Napa and Sonoma counties. Two patients with severe burns were in critical condition, officials said.
Hundreds of firefighters streamed into the region. The California Highway Patrol said it had used helicopters to rescue 42 people, some of them vineyard workers. Those saved from the flames ranged in age from 5 to 91.
But Chief Ken Pimlott of Cal Fire said crews had "limited or no containment" on the fires as of Monday afternoon, and that many communities "were just overrun."
Officials were looking into the cause of the fires.
Residents in the hardest-hit areas described fleeing for their lives in the middle of the night, in cars or on foot, amid a disaster that stood as another stark reminder of the peril of wildfires in California at the end of the long dry season.
"It's not uncommon to have multiple fires burning," Pimlott said. "But I can certainly tell you it's becoming more of the norm now to have multiple large, damaging fires now like we're seeing today."
One of the most aggressive fires roared in the Atlas Peak area of Napa County, a famed winemaking spot northeast of the city of Napa.
Guests of the Silverado Resort and Spa said they escaped in a rush late Sunday, just before midnight, as flames approached. The resort had hosted the Safeway Open, a PGA Tour event, which ended earlier in the day.
"We were sleeping, but we kept smelling smoke," said Chris Thomas, 42, of Kirkland, Wash., who arrived in Napa Valley late Sunday with his wife, Marissa Schneider, for a wine-tasting trip. They saw a firetruck pass, then were ordered by loudspeaker to leave. The power went out.
"It was surreal," Thomas said. "When I started loading stuff into the car it was a hell-storm of smoke and ash. There were 30- to 40-mile-per-hour winds. I couldn't even breathe, so I ran back to the unit to get Marissa. It was so smoky I went to the wrong unit. When I found her I said, 'Forget it, let's just go.' It went from being an annoying evacuation to something really scary."
They drove to downtown Napa and found a hotel room. The Silverado Resort and Spa survived, a representative later said, and all staffers and guests got out safely.
The series of fires began to ignite Sunday and multiplied as the night went on.
Coffey Park, a subdivision northwest of downtown Santa Rosa where 7,000 people lived, was leveled. Most of the homes burned, along with a Kmart, a McDonald's, an Arby's and an Applebee's.
Among those who left the area as the flames bore down were 11 members of the Flores family, who woke up and piled into two vehicles with four dogs after being jolted awake by neighbors. They said the air was thick with smoke and the wind was blowing so hard that trash bins toppled over.
"We couldn't really see anything," said Bradley Flores, 15. "We just got our dogs and got into the car and left. The wind was so bad our car was shaking."
So vast was the havoc, and so sweeping the evacuations, that Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 people, was a virtual ghost town, with most businesses shuttered.
On Monday afternoon, families started trickling back into the Coffey Park neighborhood. They stood in front of smoldering rubble, hands covering mouths as they took in the sight. Some held each other and sobbed. Others shook their heads.
One woman cried as she explained that her father's ashes had been in the house. Another wept after realizing her beloved turtle was amid the ruins.
Todd Trask just stared. His house was gone, as was every neighbor's home as far as he could see. When he left at 1:30 a.m. after neighbors woke each other with honking and yelling, he thought evacuating was just a precaution.
He left thinking his biggest problem would be getting the smell of smoke out of his home when he got back. Instead, in the afternoon, he mourned the photos, mementos and personal items that were lost.
"This is all replaceable, this is tangible," he said. "None of my neighbors died and my kids are safe.''