California Residents Again Face Fire Anguish as Homes Burn

September 30, 2020 Updated: September 30, 2020

Northern California’s wine country was on fire again Sept. 28 as strong winds fanned flames in the already scorched region, destroying homes and prompting overnight evacuation orders for more than 50,000 people.

Residents of the Oakmont Gardens senior living facility in Santa Rosa boarded brightly lit city buses in the darkness overnight, some wearing bathrobes and using walkers. They wore masks to protect against the coronavirus as orange flames marked the dark sky.

The fire threat forced Adventist Health St. Helena hospital to suspend care and transfer all patients elsewhere.

The fires that began Sept. 27 in the famed Napa-Sonoma wine country about 45 miles north of San Francisco came as the region nears the third anniversary of deadly wildfires that erupted in 2017, including one that killed 22 people. Just a month ago, many of those same residents were evacuated from the path of a lightning-sparked fire that became the fourth-largest in state history.

“Our firefighters have not had much of a break, and these residents have not had much of a break,” said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin evacuated her home in the Oakmont community of Santa Rosa at about 1 a.m. She is rebuilding a home damaged in the 2017 fires. Gorin told the San Francisco Chronicle that she is numb, and the situation feels surreal.

More than 53,000 people in Sonoma and Napa counties have been evacuated in the latest inferno, one of 27 major fire clusters burning across the state, said Berlant.

The Glass Fire broke out before 4 a.m. Sept. 27 and merged with two other fires to scorch 17 square miles as of early Sept. 28. Officials did not have an estimate on the number of homes destroyed or burned, but the blaze engulfed the Chateau Boswell Winery in St. Helena and at least one five-star resort.

Logan Hertel of Santa Rosa used a garden hose to fight flames at a neighbor’s house in the Skyhawk neighborhood until firefighters could relieve him.

“Seems like they got enough on their hands already. So I wanted to step in and put out the fire,” Hertel said.

Dominic Wiggens, who lives in the same neighborhood, evacuated but returned later Sept. 28. His home was still standing, but many others were gone. “It’s so sad,” he said.

Pacific Gas & Electric was inspecting its equipment as it sought to restore power to more than 100,000 customers who had it turned off in advance of gusty winds and in areas with active fire zones. The utility’s equipment has caused previous disasters, including the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people and devastated the town of Paradise in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Evacuations were also ordered in Shasta County as the Zogg Fire spread over 23 square miles (59 square kilometers). Residences are widely scattered in the forested area in the far northern part of the state. The region was torched just two years ago by the deadly Carr Fire—infamously remembered for producing a huge tornado-like fire whirl.

The causes of the new fires were under investigation.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said 2020 has been challenging.

“The silver lining to it is that people who live in California become more prepared, they’re more aware, they know these events take place and we’re seeing a citizenry that does get it and is working hard to be prepared,” he said.

So far in this year’s historic fire season, more than 8,100 California wildfires have killed 26 people, scorched 5,780 square miles (14,970 square kilometers), and destroyed more than 7,000 buildings.

Most of the losses occurred after a frenzy of dry lightning strikes in mid-August ignited a massive outbreak of fires.

Fire worries were developing Sept. 28 across Southern California, although it was unclear how strong the predicted Santa Ana winds would become. Heat and extreme dryness were also expected to create problems.

By Janie Har