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Sunday 21 October 2018

Hundreds flee California homes as rising winds fan wildfires

Some 9,000 firefighters are working to control the flames using air tankers, helicopters and more than 1,000 fire engines (AP)
Some 9,000 firefighters are working to control the flames using air tankers, helicopters and more than 1,000 fire engines (AP)

Rising winds have fanned the Northern California wildfires again, forcing hundreds more people to flee from their homes in the state's wine country and destroying more buildings.

The winds picked up several hours before dawn and pushed flames into the hills on the edge of Sonoma, a town of 11,000.

An unknown number of structures burned down in a rural area, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

About 400 homes were evacuated as the fires threatened Sonoma and a portion of Santa Rosa including a retirement community that was evacuated earlier this week.

Winds gusting up to 40mph were expected to continue throughout the day and into the evening.

On Friday, firefighters reported their first progress in containing some of the blazes, but the renewed strength of the winds was "testing the work that we accomplished," Mr Berlant said.

The blazes have left at least 38 people dead and 5,700 homes and businesses destroyed, making them the deadliest and most destructive series of wildfires California has ever seen.

Also on 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. 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 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 on 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," Mr Vitt said. "So you got to bring some sanity into this whole thing."

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.

"The emergency is not over, and we continue to work at it, but we are seeing some great progress," said the state's emergency operations director, Mark Ghilarducci.

Over the past 24 hours, crews arrived from Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, North and South Carolina, Oregon and Arizona. Other teams came from as far away as Canada and Australia.


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