LOS ANGELES (NBC) — Powerful wildfires fanned by strong winds ravaged parts of Northern California’s wine country on Monday, killing at least 11 people and destroying some 1,500 structures.
More than a dozen blazes continued to burn across eight counties since the weekend, while over 20,000 people in the paths of the fast-moving infernos fled their homes, said Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared an emergency in the affected counties, which include Napa and Sonoma, and asked for a federal declaration of a major disaster for the entire state.
In Sonoma County, officials said they had received more than 100 phone calls to its missing persons hotline, although they believed some could be duplicates.
Marian Williams of Kenwood, in Sonoma County, told NBC Bay Area that she joined a caravan of neighbors driving through the flames before dawn as one of the fires reached the area’s vineyards.
“It was an inferno like you’ve never seen before,” Williams told the station.
The wildfires — which also engulfed a hotel and a trailer park in the city of Santa Rosa and sent smoke spewing as far south as San Francisco — have collectively become among the most deadliest in California’s history.
Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said seven people had been killed there in fire-related incidents — and “that number’s going to change.”
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection confirmed that two people had been killed in Napa County, as well as one person in Mendocino County. Another fire-related death was confirmed in Yuba Country.
Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, agreed Monday that other deaths were likely across the region. Since the fires were moving so rapidly, he added, authorities were “still trying to get our hands around” the full extent of the damage and casualties.
Pimlott said that many other people had been injured and that an undetermined number were missing.
The National Weather Service warned that very low relative humidity, coupled with strong and gusty winds, would continue to pose a critical threat through Tuesday morning. Winds were expected to weaken later in the day and on Wednesday, with higher humidity spreading slowly inland.
Pacific Gas & Electric said more than 94,000 customers were without power as of Tuesday morning, most of them in the North Bay Division and Sonoma area. Gas service was shut off to 30,000 customers, it said. The California Highway Patrol said it had rescued 44 people by helicopter.
All of the new fires started after 10 p.m. PT (1 a.m. ET) on Sunday, Pimlott said, bringing the total spread of more than 25 fires across the northern half of California to about 73,000 acres at what he called the worst possible time.
Californians are pushing their way through a phenomenon called the Santa Ana winds — powerful systems that start inland and almost always blast hot, extremely dry air across Northern California and the southern California coast.
The hot, dry blasts are sometimes called los diablos, or “the devil winds,” and they often create critical fire conditions.
“Every spark is going to ignite a fire,” said Pimlott, who said that the rash of blazes “all started about 10 o’clock last night” and that “we’re continuing to get new starts.”
“Most of these fires have limited or no containment. These are rapidly moving fires,” he said. “The planets literally aligned to have this explosive state.”
At least 1,500 homes and commercial structures were destroyed in the region in just 12 hours, authorities said.
Cal Fire Deputy Chief Bret Gouvea, commander of the unified response team, described a simultaneous eruption of “large fires that were all wind driven, with winds up to 50 miles per hour, in seven counties.”
“Sometimes we get away with these wind events, and other times we get caught,” he said.
Capt. Craig Schwartz, acting chief of the Santa Rosa police, said evacuation efforts were continuing. “Officers were going in and reporting that they were having a hard time getting out,” he said.
Brown said Monday night they anticipate more destruction, which would hit both homes and public infrastructure. The governor added that officials would continue to do preliminary damage assessments as soon as conditions permit access.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency immediately agreed to the state’s request for federal funds to help fight many of the fires, the Department of Homeland Security said.
Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said that the flames in Sonoma County “came in very, very hard [with] very dry winds,” and that they “drained our resources very quickly.”
Cheri Sharp said her home of 26 years in Santa Rosa was among those that had been destroyed.
“All our pictures are gone. Everything. Everything is gone,” Sharp told NBC affiliate KOBI of Medford, Oregon, near the Northern California border. “We’ve got a fire pit. It’s pretty awful.
“But we’re all healthy and safe, and we have to try and be grateful for that,” she said. “But it’s pretty awful.”