Tuesday 18 September 2018

Ten dead and 1,500 homes destroyed in California fires

A firefighter in Anaheim Hills, California. Photo: Jeff Gritchen/AP
A firefighter in Anaheim Hills, California. Photo: Jeff Gritchen/AP

Amy Sugarbay in Los Angeles

Raging wildfires in California's wine country have claimed at least 10 lives and forced thousands to flee their homes.

Wildfires whipped by powerful winds have swept through the region, destroying 1,500 homes and businesses as flames raged unchecked through high-end resorts, grocery stores and tree-lined neighbourhoods.

Several fires broke out virtually simultaneously and then spread rapidly overnight, sending residents fleeing as embers rained down and flames raged around them. Two hospitals in Santa Rosa, the largest city in the affected region with 175,000 people, were forced to evacuate patients.

Later in the day, fires from ruptured gas lines dotted the smoky landscapes of blackened hillsides. Fire trucks raced by smouldering roadside landscapes in search of higher priorities.

The flames were unforgiving throughout the city, torching block after block with little to salvage.

Hundreds of homes in the Fountain Grove area were levelled by flames so hot they melted the glass of cars and turned aluminium wheels into liquid. One neighbourhood of older homes was scorched, leaving only brick chimneys and downed power lines.

Residents who gathered at emergency shelters and grocery stores said they were shocked by the speed and ferocity of the flames. They recalled all the possessions they had left behind and were lost.

"All that good stuff, I'm never going to see it again," said Jeff Okrepkie, who fled his neighbourhood in Santa Rosa, knowing it was probably the last time he would see his home of the past five years standing.

His worst fears were confirmed when a friend sent him a photo of what was left: a smouldering heap of burnt metal and debris.

In the rush to leave, Mr Okrepkie and his wife were able to gather important documents, photos and mementos, like letters from his wife's late father.

Still, Mr Okrepkie was tortured by the things he left behind, including a framed photo of his grandfather that his grandmother had carried with her for a decade after he had died.

Some of the largest of the 14 blazes burning over a 320km region were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world.

They sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 100km away.

The causes of the fires were unknown.

The fires throughout the region were among the deadliest in Californian history, and fire officials expected the number of fatalities to increase.

Winds have posed a challenge to firefighters in the state this year despite a relatively wet winter that followed years of drought.

Irish Independent

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