HUNDREDS of extra firefighters have been sent to battle deadly wildfires in Northern California that have killed 15 people.
Among the dead were 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his 98-year-old wife Sara Rippey. The couple, married for 75 years, couldn’t escape their burning Silverado Resort, Napa home.
“The only thing worse would have been if one survived without the other,” their daughter, Ruby Gibney, told Oakland television station KTVU.
More than 100 people have been injured, 150 are missing, 3000 remain in shelters and 2000 homes and businesses have been destroyed, with numbers set to rise.
Authorities hoped cooler weather and lighter winds would help crews get a handle on the fires, which are among the deadliest in California history and are still burning completely uncontained.
“The weather has been working in our favour, but it doesn’t mean it will stay that way,” said Brad Alexander, a spokesman of the governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
More than 640km away, flames imperilled parts of Southern California, too. Thousands of people were displaced by a wildfire that destroyed or damaged 24 structures, including homes.
Hot, dry Santa Ana winds swept fire along brushy outskirts of Orange County suburbs and equestrian properties southeast of Los Angeles. More than a dozen schools were closed.
The blaze, which disrupted major commuter routes, spread over nearly a dozen square kilometres in less than 24 hours as a squadron of helicopters and aeroplanes bombarded it with water and retardant, and an army of firefighters grew to 1100 by Tuesday morning.
At the other end of the state, 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 that 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 on Monday, when a friend sent him a photo of what was left: a smouldering heap of burnt metal and debris.
A state of emergency has been declared in parts of northern California as wildfires rage, killing 13 people.
It was unusual to have so many fires take off at the same time, fire officials said, though October has generally been the most destructive time of year for California wildfires.
The ferocity of the flames forced authorities to focus primarily on getting people out safely, even if it meant abandoning structures to the fire. The fire area covered more than 160 square kilometres over eight counties.
Some of the largest blazes were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. Those fires sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 96km away. Fires also burned in Yuba, Butte and Nevada counties — all north of the state capital.
The inferno blackened kilometres along one of the main gateways into wine country, State Highway 12 into Sonoma County. Wooden fence posts and guard rails burned fiercely. Thick smoke roiled from one winery, JR Cohn.
The fires also damaged the Silverado Resort in Napa and a Hilton hotel in Santa Rosa, the largest city in the fire area, with a population of about 175,000.
Kim Hoe, a 33-year-old tech worker from Penang, Malaysia, was staying at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, which was gutted by flames. He said the power went out around 1am, and he and his colleagues started packing up when someone knocked on the door and told them to run.
“We just had to run and run. It was full of smoke. We could barely breathe. It was dangerous,” Hoe said.
They returned in the morning to find the hotel had been destroyed along with most of their possessions. Hoe was relieved he had taken his passport and a few essential items.
Santa Rosa lost a Kmart, restaurants and an unknown number of businesses and homes. The blaze shut down schools and forced more than 200 patients at two city hospitals to evacuate.
Firefighters rushed to a state home for the severely disabled when flames reached one side of the centre’s sprawling campus in the historic Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen. Emergency workers leapt from their cars to aid in the evacuation. Crews got the more than 200 patients from the threatened buildings, one firefighter said, as flames closed within a few metres. Residents throughout the area described a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames.
Mike Turpen, 38, was at a bar in Glen Ellen early Monday when a stranger wearing a smoke mask ran in and yelled that there was a fire. Turpen raced home through flames in his Ford F-250.
“It was like Armageddon was on,” Turpen said. “Every branch of every tree was on fire.” He woke later to find all his neighbours’ homes on fire, but stayed behind to try to defend his own rental home.
By late morning, Turpen, wearing shorts, a kerchief mask and goggles, was the last man standing for miles along one abandoned road. His yard and all those around him were burned, smoking and still flaming in a few spots. But his home was still standing.