Rising winds fanned the California wildfires again Saturday, forcing hundreds more people to flee from their homes in the state’s fabled wine country and testing the efforts of crews who have spent days trying to corral the flames behind firebreaks.
Just a day after firefighters reported making significant progress on a blaze that has killed an unprecedented 40 people, the winds kicked up several hours before dawn and pushed flames into the hills on the edge of Sonoma, a town of 11,000. About 400 homes were evacuated as the fires threated Sonoma and a portion of Santa Rosa that included a retirement community that evacuated earlier this week, authorities said.
Napa County announced two more deaths Saturday bringing the total death toll to 40. As of Saturday afternoon, the death toll stands at 22 in Sonoma County, eight in Mendocino County, six in Napa County and four in Yuba County.
A Red Flag Warning is in effect across the North Bay and parts of the East Bay through 11 p.m. Saturday. Low humidity, higher temperatures, and gusty winds are expected to persist into the weekend and contribute to extreme fire behavior.
"Everyone is coming to grips with idea that Santa Rosa is never going to be the same again," said councilman Chris Rogers.
Governor Jerry Brown and senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris visited the hard-hit town on Saturday.
"At a time like this, we all pull together," Brown said, describing the fires as a "horrible situation."
Harris encouraged residents to pay heed to evacuation orders while Feinstein promised the government's help.
Critical fire threats will exacerbate ongoing fires in Northern California, according to the National Weather Service. Any new fires are expected to spread rapidly – no matter what firefighters do to stop them. Firefighters have been warned that conditions in the field have reverted to the severity of Sunday, when a firestorm struck the region.
"Normal is going to take a very new meaning here in Napa as we see our way out of this," said Belia Ramos, chairwoman of the Napa County Board of Supervisors.
As of Saturday, though, strong winds in the region had prompted officials to halt escorts into evacuated areas.
No evacuations are planned Saturday, but ongoing weather conditions could change that, Ramos said, urging people to be "vigilant."
"This morning I woke up and I saw blue skies, but I can tell you I know I’m not the same person I was on Sunday," Ramos said. "None of us are. And that takes a toll on everybody."
A local assistance center will be available for Napa County's fire victims, starting next week. Congressman Mike Thompson said FEMA has approved individual disaster assistance grants that will be made available to people who have lost their homes and been otherwise affected by the wildfires. However, they will only be available after residents have received insurance funds.
"It's like a hurricane. Instead of water drops flying sideways and wind, you have fire flying sideways," Cal Fire Capt. Jerry Fernandez told NBC Bay Area.
According to Cal Fire, the Atlas Fire has burned 50,383 acres in Napa and Solano counties and is 45 percent contained; the Tubbs Fire has scorched 35,270 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties and is 44 percent contained; the Nuns Fire has burned 46,104 acres in Sonoma County and is 10 percent contained; the Partrick-Carneros Fire in Napa County has charred 12,379 acres and is 18 percent contained; the Pocket Fire has burned 10,996 acres in Sonoma County and is 5 percent contained; and the Pressley Fire has torched 473 acres in Sonoma County and is 10 percent contained.
Flames have raced across the wine-growing region and the scenic coastal area of Mendocino farther north, leveling whole neighborhoods and leaving only brick chimneys and charred appliances to mark where homes once stood.
The Redwood Valley Fire burning in Mendocino County has torn through 34,000 acres and is 20 percent contained; the Sulphur Fire has torched 2,500 acres in Lake County and is 60 percent contained; and the Cascade Fire in Yuba County has burned 10,120 acres and is 75 percent contained, officials said.
Early Saturday, firefighters reported a new Lake County blaze, dubbed the Long Fire, which charred 20 acres off Highway 20 and Long Valley Road, east of Clearlake Oaks.
Dean Vincent Bordigioni, winemaker and proprietor at the Annadel Estate Winery awoke at 3 a.m. with flames erupting on the ridge above his property. “Things went to hell last night,” he said. “They’ve got a good fight going on.”
Nearly a week after the blazes began, the fire zone had swollen to an area as long as 100 miles on a side. The flames have left at least 35 people dead and destroyed at least 5,700 homes and businesses, making them the deadliest and most destructive group of wildfires California has ever seen.
On Saturday, an unknown number of additional structures burned down in a rural area, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Judy Guttridge, who was evacuating for the second time this week, said her daughter saw flames advancing over the side of a hill around the same time Bordigioni did and told the family to get out.
“I have good insurance, everything,” she said. “All the kids, grandkids, great-grandkids are fine. I’m OK with that.”
Firefighters spent much of the last week digging defense lines to keep the flames from spreading. On Friday, they tried to fortify the edge of Sonoma using bulldozers and other heavy equipment.
But if winds push the flames over that barrier, neighborhoods including some of the town’s costliest homes were in the path, along with a historic central plaza built centuries ago when the area was under Spanish rule.
The renewed strength of the winds was “testing the work that we accomplished,” Berlant said. The greatest risk was that winds would blow embers across the firebreaks and ignite new blazes.
Winds gusting up to 40 mph were expected to continue throughout the day and into the evening.
Also Friday, a lucky few of the nearly 100,000 people who have fled from their homes got to return, and examples of charity were everywhere, along with a sign that began popping up in more and more places: “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”
Astonishing video released from the fire’s hellish first night showed the courage of the deputies and firefighters working amid the flames.
“Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!” an unidentified Sonoma County deputy can be heard yelling in the body-camera video released by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The footage was recorded as he urged hesitant drivers to speed out of a town that was being devoured by flames.
The deputy is shown lifting a disabled woman out of her wheelchair and into an SUV to rush her out of town. And he drives through walls of flame looking for more people to help.
“And that’s just one person,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said at a news conference.
At an RV evacuation site at Sonoma Raceway, evacuees counted their blessings, trying not to think about what they had lost and what they might yet lose.
The mood at sunset Friday was upbeat, even cheerful, as children and dogs played in the twilight. More than 100 campers were parked by the side of a highway. There were portable bathrooms and tables groaning from donated water bottles, stuffed animals and food.
Ron Vitt, 75, and Ellen Brantley, 65, sat in chairs watching the cars go by, a small table between them holding drinks: gin with cocktail onions for him and gin with lime for her. They joked as their dog bounced about happily.
“There is a sun that’s going to set. There’s a dog who is really happy,” Vitt said. “So you got to bring some sanity into this whole thing.”
At Sonoma Valley High School, the parking lot was packed with cars and vans. Middle school Principal Will Deeths supervised volunteers and made sure people had plenty of water and a filter mask. He said more than 100 people spent Thursday night at the school, which has been converted into a shelter.
He said the community response has been phenomenal. Hairdressers from Oakland came to fix people’s hair and a young man played guitar to entertain families, he said. They even had a birthday party for a 5-year-old boy, complete with a donated cake from a local bakery.
“Two days ago we were in need of size 5 diapers,” he said. “Someone put it on Facebook and within an hour, four or five cars pulled up, two or three boxes. Boom, boom, boom, here you go.”
More than a dozen fires broke out nearly simultaneously on Oct. 8 and people had little time to escape. Most of the deaths were elderly people.
In all, 17 large fires still burned across the northern part of the state, with more than 9,000 firefighters attacking the flames using air tankers, helicopters and more than 1,000 fire engines.
Associated Press writers Paul Elias in Sonoma, Olga R. Rodriguez, Jocelyn Gecker and Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco and Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz also contributed to this report.