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Wildfires are a common occurrence in California from early spring to late autumn due to the dry, windy, and hot weather conditions. However, the Golden State has never experienced anything as devastating as the fires that are currently burning through parts of Northern California. Though it has been four days since the first flames ignited, firefighters still have no control over the blazes that extend all the way from Napa to Mendocino County.
The widespread destruction of what is popularly known as the wine country, began on Sunday, October 8 when three fires ignited almost simultaneously. The Atlas fire, which has already burned through 26,000 acres in Napa and Solano counties, started at 9:20 pm. Shortly after, at 9:45 pm, came news of the Tubbs Fire in Calistoga and then, at 10:36 pm, of the Redwood/Potter fires west of the Mendocino National Forest.
While having three fires start within minutes of each other late in the night is hard enough for firefighters to battle, what made things worse was the unprecedented 50-79 mph gusts of wind. Experts say the destructive winds and the bounty of plants that had bloomed following a heavy rainy season, but have since wilted and dried out, provided the perfect storm of factors.
By late Sunday night, rapidly moving infernos leaped from ridge top to ridge top, claiming houses, hotels, and wineries that lay in its path. Among the worst hit is the city of Santa Rosa, where the Tubbs fire has leveled an entire neighborhood and torched a Hilton hotel and strip-mall. The fast-moving flames forced thousands of residents to flee their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Despite the ongoing efforts of the almost 8,000 firefighters who are battling the fires both from the ground and air, the situation continues to deteriorate. The rapidly spreading flames that have scorched over 170,000 acres and destroyed more than 3,500 structures, show no signs of slowing down. Over 20,000 people have been forced to leave their homes, and thousands more are ready to evacuate at short notice. At least 23 people have perished, and 285 remain missing.
Meanwhile, the weather is refusing to cooperate. The affected areas, as well as numerous other North Bay counties, are under Red Flag warnings (indicating conditions ideal for fast-moving fires) until late tonight (October 12) due to the expected 50 mph winds. "It's a good heads-up to all the firefighters and emergency management that the conditions are going to be pretty bad in terms of the fire behaviors," said Will Pi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "We're expecting the strongest winds to be tonight and tomorrow morning."
With the rain not expected until next Wednesday, there is little hope of the fires being extinguished entirely anytime soon. However, the firefighters are doing everything they can to prevent them from spreading further, such as clearing the brush that provides the fuel.
The cause of the devastating fires is still being determined. One possibility being investigated is that they were ignited by falling power lines or exploding electrical transformers, both of which were reported to Sonoma County emergency dispatchers on Sunday night. If true, this would not be the first time the local utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, would be responsible for a major fire.
In April, the State Public Utilities Commission fined the company $8.3 million for failing to properly maintain a power line which caused the massive Butte fire that killed two people, demolished 549 homes and burned through 70,868 acres in Amador County in 2015. But regardless of what caused the fire, for people that have lost their homes and livelihood, it is a life-altering event that will take many years to recover.
Stay Strong, California! The world’s thoughts and prayers are with you!
Resources: Cnn.com, latimes.con, sfgate.com, mercurynews.com.