Rubble and ashes are almost all that remain on this street in Santa Rosa, Oct. 10, 2017. Residents of the Fountaingrove neighborhood had little warning in the fast moving fire. Paul Kitagaki Jr. The Sacramento Bee
Rubble and ashes are almost all that remain on this street in Santa Rosa, Oct. 10, 2017. Residents of the Fountaingrove neighborhood had little warning in the fast moving fire. Paul Kitagaki Jr. The Sacramento Bee

Fires

Wine country fires: Flames came so fast people had little time to get out. Some didn’t make it.

By Ryan Lillis, Molly Sullivan And Sam Stanton

msullivan@sacbee.com

October 10, 2017 06:29 AM

UPDATED October 11, 2017 09:07 AM

Santa Rosa

The fires that swept across Northern California late Sunday erupted without warning, roaring down hillsides and out of forests. They incinerated entire neighborhoods in minutes as residents fled for their lives after being awakened by frantic police and fire officials going door to door in the dark.

At least 17 people died in the series of wind-whipped blazes, and about 200 remained unaccounted for Tuesday as officials fought to halt the flames’ advances in California wine country, portions of the north-central state and the Mendocino area.

By Tuesday, officials described “pure devastation” from 17 large fires that had burned more than 115,000 acres and destroyed at least 2,000 homes and businesses.

“Understand, these fires started after 10 o’clock, around midnight on a Sunday night, and people are sleeping,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said. “And they burned so quickly there was no time to notify anybody.

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“We’re going to find that some of these folks were just sleeping at home in bed, and had no idea because there were only minutes, if not seconds,” he said.

Two of the victims identified by authorities are Charles Rippey, 100, and his wife of 75 years, Sara, 99, who died in their home in the Silverado neighborhood of Napa County. The couple’s nanny had called their son, according to news reports, saying the house was on fire. She was unable to get them out.

Eleven others died in the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, and three people were killed in the Redwood Complex fire in Mendocino County, where 50 homes burned in the Redwood Valley area. Another victim was a Yuba County woman killed in the Cascade Fire. Just after midnight Monday, as she attempted to flee through thick smoke, she drove her truck off a road just yards from her house near the tiny town of Loma Rica. The vehicle caught fire, and she could not escape. Neighbors said her name was Sandra Picciano.

Officials say they expect the death toll to rise, noting that in many areas vehicles remain in the garages of burned-out homes, a possible sign that residents were unable to get out.

When the sun rose over a smoky sky on Tuesday, there were 17 fires still burning statewide, CalFire said, the most serious in and around California’s famed wine country. The flames enveloped rural areas near forests and marched through flat, residential neighborhoods and business districts that typically are never touched by wildland fires. Wineries burned, as did hotels, a high school – even a fire station.

“It burned everything; it didn’t discriminate,” Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said of the 27,000-acre Tubbs Fire. “It’s just coming, and there’s no way to stop it.”

Residents who survived described harrowing, last-minute escapes.

Jim and Glenda Noonan packed a box of clothing earlier in the night after smelling smoke near their Fountaingrove neighborhood home in Santa Rosa, then went to bed. They were awakened near midnight by a police officer who had given up pounding on their front door and came into their bedroom to tell them they had to flee, to leave the box behind and get out.

Tuesday morning, the couple stood outside a roadblock with their daughter, Susan, tearfully awaiting word on the fate of their home on Skyfarm Drive, where block after block of houses were turned to ash in minutes. Only three out of at least 100 homes on the street were spared; the Noonans learned theirs was destroyed after a Bee reporter touring the devastation confirmed it to them.

Jim and Susan Decker had about five minutes warning as the fire roared into the Fountaingrove area, an affluent hilltop neighborhood with sweeping views of the canyons and wineries of Sonoma County.

Susan Decker said she was sound asleep at 11:30 p.m. when she smelled smoke and went outside. “The sky was weird, it looked eerie,” she said.

She went inside and got into bed. Ten minutes later, firefighters were pounding on her door.

On Monday, a neighbor saw their home was still standing, but when smoke started coming from the garage the neighbor told firefighters who had been protecting the house that two Chevrolet Corvettes were inside the garage. The firefighters got Jim Decker’s phone number from the neighbor, and called to find out where he kept the car keys. The vehicles were saved, as was a diamond necklace made from Susan Decker’s mother’s wedding ring that firefighters retrieved for her.

“We are so lucky compared to everybody else,” Jim Decker said he as surveyed his neighbors’ burned homes. “We are so fortunate. We feel so sorry for everybody else. What else do you say?”

In the Rincon Valley area of Santa Rosa, Kim Graves and her family returned Tuesday to find their ranch-style home destroyed.

A hissing gas line was still shooting flames, 36 hours after the fire tore through the area.

Graves had checked the fire report at 7:30 Sunday night and it was clear, so she went to sleep. Two miles away, her son, Jonathan, was awakened a few hours later by the sound of the cover on his hot tub slamming. The winds had arrived – and so had the fire.

Jonathan called his mother. She didn't answer, so he raced down the hill to her home and slammed on the door. The hillsides and valleys around the neighborhood were glowing red as the blaze advanced into heavily populated areas.

Kim Graves grabbed some clothes, a photo album and a set of toy cars she had accumulated over the years for her grandsons. Then she and her husband were gone.

“We’re OK,” Kim Graves said. “And we’re learning more and more how unimportant stuff is.”

Cal Fire had been warning of the potential for devastating fires since Friday, when weather forecasts called for wind gusts of up to 50 mph throughout a huge swath of the north state.

Wind gusts blew embers from the fires as much as three quarters of a mile, officials said. “Every ember that hit was going to start a fire,” said McLean, the Cal Fire spokesman. “It’s a no-win situation.”

The causes of the various blazes remain under investigation, although Pimlott noted that 95 percent of the time investigators find wildfires are human-caused, especially in such heavily populated areas.

“It’s literally like it exploded,” Pimlott said. “This is just pure devastation, and it’s going to take us a while to comb through this.”

About 4,000 emergency workers were helping fight the fires, officials said. Firefighters got a break Tuesday with calm winds and increased humidity. Air tankers flying out of McClellan Park in suburban Sacramento performed a record 45 missions Monday that dumped 266,000 acres of retardant on the blazes.

Vice President Mike Pence visited the state’s emergency operations center at Mather Air Park on Tuesday and announced that President Donald Trump had approved the state’s request for federal assistance in the counties of Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Sonoma and Yuba.

Firefighters also were battling the Canyon Fire 2 in Orange County, where the 7,500-acre blaze had forced evacuations from around Anaheim.

The fires toppled cell phone towers and burned transmission lines, making communications difficult for officials trying to locate missing residents.

To the north in Mendocino County, the tiny rural community of Redwood Valley was particularly hard hit. Fifty homes burned, and three people were reported dead as of Tuesday.

Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman said Tuesday he had no estimate of how many people in the area have been reported missing. “There’s unknowns out there because of the people who have not checked in with their relatives,” he said, adding that fierce winds helped spread the blaze and that dozens of people suffered burns.

“We had four major burn victims and over two dozen other burn victims that were taken to Ukiah Valley and Willits hospitals,” he said.

Allman said damage to cell towers and fiber-optic phone and computer lines has left officials using amateur ham radio operators to communicate with area hospitals.

The sheriff also confirmed that officials had arrested a suspected looter Monday who was found inside an unburned home, an announcement that elicited large cheers from a crowd of residents watching his press conference.

Brendan Turner, acting fire chief for the Redwood Valley Calpella Fire Department north of Ukiah, said his mostly volunteer force turned out Sunday night in winds so severe “you had to lean into it to stay up.”

At first, the department tried to extinguish the flames with water and hoses, then quickly realized they were fighting a lost cause as the blaze jumped across three rural roads. They started going house to house, warning residents to get out. Turner said he led a caravan of cars through the flames to safety.

“I can’t even describe how fast it was moving,” Turner said. “It was beyond extreme.”

At one point, a car in the convoy broke down, and he helped carry a physically disabled passenger from that vehicle and put him in a stranger’s car.

The fire destroyed dozens of homes in the area, and partially burned a winery. As Turner recounted the events, flames remained visible behind him on a ridgeline north of the area.

“We’re a small community,” Turner said. “Everyone is impacted by this.”

Although officials said weather conditions had improved for the firefight Tuesday, the National Weather Service in Sacramento issued a new red flag warning for much of the north state for Wednesday and Thursday that predicted wind gusts of 35 to 40 mph.

“Any fire has the potential to spread rapidly,” the warning said. “Outdoor burning is not recommended.”

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis Benjy Egel, Marjie Lundstrom and Anthony Sorci contributed.