Death toll rises to 21 as Northern California fires spread to more than 160,000 acres
State and federal officials portrayed an all-out effort to fend off the devastating wildfires at a news conference at a state emergency operations center outside Sacramento.
"It's an extremely stressful and challenging time," said Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci. "We are all hands on deck."
The situation remains very dangerous, officials said.
"We're not going to be out of the woods for a great many days to come," said Cal Fire head Ken Pimlott. The state is still feeling the effects of the drought despite a recent wet winter, and there's "explosive vegetation" fueling the blazes.
"We've had big fires in the past," Gov. Jerry Brown said. "This is one of the biggest."
According to Cal Fire spokeswoman Heather Williams, 11 people have died in Sonoma County, six in Mendocino County, two in Yuba County and two in Napa County.
As the devastating firestorm continued to spread in Sonoma and Napa counties Wednesday, crews launched a desperate effort to extinguish key hot spots before heavy, fire-stoking winds could kick back up later in the day.
Officials fear that strong winds forecast for Wednesday evening and Thursday morning will spread embers from the deadly Tubbs fire to populated areas of Santa Rosa and Calistoga that have so far been spared the flames — and new evacuation orders were issued.
"We are facing some pretty significant monsters," Cal Fire incident commander Bret Couvea told a room of about 200 firefighters and law enforcement officials at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds staging area on Wednesday morning.
Already, the Northern California fires have scorched more than 160,000 acres. Cal Fire estimates that around 3,500 structures have been destroyed.
Winds were projected to be light, less than 5 miles per hour, from the north in the morning. They will increase to about 15 miles per hour in the afternoon in the valleys, officials said.
At night, however, "the return of the north wind will have a strong influence on the southern portions of the Tubbs fire," a Cal Fire weather report said. "Winds will be 25 to 30 miles per hour after 2 a.m. These strong winds have the potential to push the fire south back towards Calistoga and Santa Rosa, especially where the fire was active yesterday [Tuesday] on the north side."
On Wednesday, the Lake County Sheriff's Department issued an advisory evacuation order for residents of Middletown — which was heavily damaged in the Valley fire just two years ago and rebuilt — as the Tubbs fire approached from the south.
Late Tuesday night, evacuations were ordered in Calistoga for the Tubbs fire, and in other areas of Napa and Sonoma counties for the Atlas Peak fire, the Nuns fire and the Pocket fire, officials said.
"The [Atlas] fire became active overnight, started burning more of the community," Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said.
Firefighters hoped to take advantage of the lull in the winds Wednesday morning and afternoon to attack hot spots and put out as many embers as possible before they can be revived and blown into areas that haven't burned yet, they said.
By Wednesday, the Tubbs fire had reached 28,000 acres with no containment, Tolmachoff said. Other fires ranging in size from 1,800 to 21,000 acres burned throughout the area and in surrounding counties.
As of Wednesday morning, Sonoma County has received about 300 reports of missing persons, and has confirmed that 110 of those people are safe, said Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Brandon Jones.
While some evacuation orders in Yuba and Nevada counties were lifted, officials estimate that upwards of 50,000 people were still out of their homes. More people in Sonoma and Napa counties were asked to leave their homes Tuesday night.
Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said Cal Fire commanders decided in the middle of the night to evacuate nearly half of the valley town of Calistoga, and by 3:30 a.m., Dillon and town officials along with police crews were walking house to house in the thick smoke, knocking on doors and telling occupants to leave.
"I was stunned to hear Cal Fire was recommending a massive, for Calistoga, evacuation," Dillon said. "When we went out to talk, people were already leaving. People were alert to the situation."
During a packed community meeting with emergency officials inside the Santa Rosa High School gym Tuesday evening, Sonoma County residents battered by the deadly wildfires were told that a red flag warning forecasting potentially hazardous fire conditions had been issued for Wednesday.
This comes after cooler weather allowed firefighters to gain ground Tuesday morning, only to see the flames flare up again with afternoon winds.
"This is nowhere near over. This is still very dangerous," Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said Tuesday night.
Officials hope, though, that they won't again face the 80 mile per hour winds that stoked fires so quickly Sunday night.
In Mendocino County the Redwood and Potter fires have reached a combined 29,500 acres with 5% containment, one resident recalled the rush to get out in time.
It was just after 1 a.m. Monday when Jaime Lynn Lojowsky woke up to a pounding at the door.
"There is a fire on the mountain," she heard her neighbor tell her husband. "It's an emergency. It's an emergency."
Lojowsky, who lives in Redwood Valley with her husband, Mac, and two young girls, looked out her back window. Normally, she'd see bright stars, the moon peeking between the redwoods, pines and oak trees. It was one of the reasons why she'd moved from crowded and light-polluted Southern California more than a year ago.
This time, white smoke choked the night sky. The hillside was on fire. Flames licked the backyard of her 1-acre lot.
Lojowsky's husband ran out the door to knock on neighbors' doors to wake them, telling them to get out. One home had already caught fire.
The winds picked up. The flames raced toward them.
"Jaime, the house is going to go. What do you want to take?" he asked.
She had minutes.
On the outside, the couple tried to stay calm for 5-year-old Isabella. Lojowsky asked her to grab some things she'd like to take. Isabella grabbed her blanket and a stash of Halloween-themed toys.
On the inside, Lojowsky panicked.
"We're going to die. I don't want my babies to die like this," she thought. "This can't be happening."
Lojowsky roused her youngest — 2-year-old Lourdes — from bed. She piled the girls into her Kia Sedona. They were met with a cloud of white smoke when she opened her garage door. Ash and fire rained down on the vehicle as she drove down the driveway and into the main road. Her husband followed in a truck behind them. About a mile down the road, a wall of flames blocked their path.
It was the main way out. She'd never gone the back way — a windy, dirt and gravel mountain road through a canyon.
Some cars barreled through the flames. Others went off the road.
She was uncertain on what to do. If she turned back, would she be met by a raging fire?
That's when she spotted a Cal Fire truck. The crew directed her to go back through the mountain pass. It was safe, they reassured her. She turned back and drove past her home. She zoomed by her neighbor's house and saw the cars still parked outside. She wondered if they'd make it out. They had three young boys.
"They have to leave now," she thought.
Her car climbed up the mountain pass, tailing her husband's truck. She called him on her cell, asking him to dial 911 to find out what they should do. She just wanted someone to tell her what to do or where to go.
The sky was still full of white smoke. She could see the flames in her rearview mirror. Lojowsky just kept driving, looking forward and keeping an eye on the gravel road speckled with potholes. Her vehicle weaved on a dirt road through a dense forest of redwoods, pines and oak trees. She could hardly see the road in front of her.
Ten minutes later, Isabella broke her silence.
"Great news, Mom. I can see the moon," she said. "I can see stars."
Lojowsky, who has fire insurance, would later discover that her house and farm had burned down. Only the brick fireplace remains of Lojowsky's three-bedroom home. It's unclear whether her chickens survived. But her family, two dogs and cats had made it out alive.