By Thomas Fuller, Jonah Engel Bromwich and Julie Turkewitz
SONOMA, Calif. – Wine country was shrouded in a thick layer of smoky haze here Tuesday as firefighters continued to battle wildfires that have left at least 13 people dead and have damaged or destroyed more than 1,500 structures, including wineries, homes and resorts.
State fire officials estimated that 17 separate fires, the first group of which began Sunday night, had burned about 115,000 acres over eight counties. More than 100 people had been taken to hospitals by Tuesday morning, and officials said that the tallies of the dead and injured were likely to rise.
About 20,000 people were forced to evacuate, some of them fleeing on foot and by car as the fires quickly overtook their towns, authorities said. Dozens of shelters opened across Northern California.
Gov. Jerry Brown was monitoring the situation but was not planning to visit the area Tuesday, a spokesman said, explaining that the governor did not want to interrupt firefighting efforts or “pull resources away for photo ops.”
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said early Tuesday that firefighters were expected to make some progress. Officials were encouraged by improved weather conditions. The winds, which had pushed the flames rapidly and in an unpredictable manner, had died down significantly, said Daniel Berlant, an assistant deputy director with the department.
But all 17 fires remained active, and several of the largest had not been contained as of Monday night.
Berlant said that those included the Tubbs fire in Sonoma and Napa counties, which had burned at least 27,000 acres; the Atlas Peak fire, which had burned 25,000 acres; and the Redwood Complex fire in Mendocino County, which had burned 19,000 acres.
The fires raged through the hills that are home to some of the country’s most prized vineyards, and fire officials said that multiple wineries had been affected.
The main north-south highway that connects San Francisco to the northernmost parts of California was closed Monday as fire engulfed both sides of the freeway. Santa Rosa is a hub for tours into wine country, and at least two large hotels that cater to wine tourism were destroyed by the fires.
Meanwhile, in Southern California, a fire in the Anaheim Hills that broke out Monday morning burned through thousands of acres, sending smoke pouring into Orange County and turning the sky a smoky shade of orange.
Hundreds of firefighters rushed to the area, as a freeway was closed and several neighborhoods were forced to evacuate. Crews had begun to contain that fire, which destroyed about a dozen homes in East Anaheim, by Tuesday.
In Northern California on Tuesday, firefighters planned to continue containment strategies, using bulldozers to cut down trees, brush and other flammable materials in front of fires. Crews used shovels and chain saws to create clear lines, starving the fire of material to feed on and holding it back. Firefighters working on the ground were assisted by air support. On Monday, Berlant said, dozens of helicopters flew until sundown, pouring water on hot spots.
The worst fires in Northern California tend to hit in October, when dry conditions prime them to spread fast and far as heavy winds, known as north winds or diablo winds, buffet the region.
Residents of the American West are already experiencing a particularly brutal wildfire season, one that has caused thousands to flee their homes, turned buildings to charred skeletons and spread a thick smoke across hundreds of miles – just as people in coastal areas of the country have battled the floods and winds of hurricanes.
As of Oct. 6, wildfires had raced through 8.5 million acres, well above the last decade’s average of 6 million per year.
While burned acres have not surpassed a 2015 record, experts say this year is concerning because so many of the fires have raged close to population centers, rather than in remote wildlands. Response crews have sometimes had to focus on saving homes over fighting fires, said Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Land Management, stretching emergency efforts thin.
She attributed this to a growing number of people living at the edge of nature, an area known to forest fire experts as the urban-wildland interface.
In recent decades, fire seasons have grown longer and more destructive, something scientists attribute in part to increased dryness caused by climate change. (Scientists from the University of Idaho and Columbia University wrote in one study published last year that climate change had caused more than half of the dryness of Western forests since 1979.)
The confluence of expanding development and warming temperatures has intensified a discussion among policymakers about how the nation will protect people from fires going forward – and how it will find the money to do so. Already, 2017 has been the most expensive fire season on record for the U.S. Forest Service, with fire-suppression costs exceeding $2 billion.
President Trump has proposed a 21 percent cut to the budget of the Department of Agriculture, which includes the forest service, and a 12 percent cut to the Department of the Interior, which runs some firefighting services.
In Santa Rosa on Monday, the fire gutted a Hilton hotel and flattened the Journey’s End retirement community, a trailer park not far from the freeway that crosses the city. Most of the trailers were leveled, leaving a smoldering debris field of household appliances, filing cabinets and the charred personal effects of more than 100 residents. Pieces of ash fell like snowflakes, and a pall of white smoke across the city blotted out the sun.
The Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, one of the area’s major cultural institutions, announced that it had suffered heavy damage and would be canceling all performances through Sunday. The center said on Twitter that the main building did not appear to have been seriously damaged, but its classrooms were destroyed.
Megan Condron, 37, is a resident of Fountaingrove in northeast Santa Rosa, which she described in an interview Tuesday as “a beautifully amazing place to live which is now completely gone.”
Condron, who has worked in the wine industry for the past 15 years, lived with her husband and two children on a hill near the top of the neighborhood. They first spotted the glow of the fire from a bedroom window Sunday, close to midnight.
After losing power twice and texting with a group of friends, they packed, feeling “100 percent confident that we were going to return,” Condron said. They left their house at 2:30 a.m.
“It was still very windy and very warm, and there was already ash in the air. It just felt surreal,” Condron said. Halloween decorations had blown from the trees and mingled with dead leaves on the grass.
Hours later, Condron said, they learned their house had “burned to the ground.”
The Condrons were able to save their wedding album, the children’s baby books, some clothes and a case of their best wine. But they and many of their neighbors lost invaluable belongings.
As the Condrons were evacuating, they received a call from a friend who lived in their neighborhood and had traveled to Texas. His wife had died of cancer earlier this year and had written letters to their sons, who are 8 and 10, to open on each birthday for years to come. He asked the Condrons to grab them.
They turned around to drive back up the hill, but a police officer blocking traffic refused to let them through. They were not able to get the letters.