Janie Har And Andrew Dalton, The Associated Press
SONOMA, Calif. — Rising winds fanned the Northern California wildfires early Saturday, forcing hundreds more people to flee from their homes in the state’s fabled wine country and destroying more buildings.
About 400 homes were evacuated ahead of the flames. The affected areas included the Oakmont retirement community near Santa Rosa that was evacuated earlier in the week, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
Flames also reached a sparsely populated part of Sonoma, a town of 11,000, where some structures burned down, CalFire spokesman Jonathan Cox said.
The fires have left at least 35 people dead and 5,700 homes and businesses destroyed, making them the deadliest and most destructive series of blazes California has ever seen.
Firefighters reported their first progress in containing the fires Friday, but officials expected the winds on Saturday to test whether those gains could last.
Also Friday, a lucky few of the nearly 100,000 people who fled their homes got to return, and examples of charity were everywhere, along with a sign that began popping up in more and more places: “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”
Astonishing video released from the fire’s hellish first night showed the courage of the deputies and firefighters working amid the flames.
“Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!” an unidentified Sonoma County deputy can be heard yelling in the body-camera video released by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The footage was recorded as he urged hesitant drivers to speed out of a town that was being devoured by flames.
He is shown lifting a disabled woman out of her wheelchair and into an SUV to rush her out of town. And he drives through walls of flame looking for more people to help.
“And that’s just one person,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said after showing the video at a news conference.
Evacuees at an RV evacuation site at Sonoma Raceway counted their blessings, trying not to think about what they had lost and what they might yet lose.
The mood at sunset Friday was upbeat, even cheerful as children and dogs scampered in the twilight. More than 100 campers were parked by the side of a highway. There were portable bathrooms and tables groaning from donated water bottles, stuffed animals and food.
Ron Vitt, 75, and Ellen Brantley, 65, sat in chairs watching the cars go by, a small table between them holding drinks: gin with cocktail onions for him and gin with lime for her. They joked as their dog bounced about happily.
“There is a sun that’s going to set. There’s a dog who is really happy,” Vitt said. “So you got to bring some sanity into this whole thing.”
At Sonoma Valley High School, the parking lot was packed with cars and vans. Middle school Principal Will Deeths supervised volunteers and made sure people had plenty of water and a filter mask. He said more than 100 people spent Thursday night at the school, which has been converted into a shelter.
He said the community response has been phenomenal. Hairdressers from Oakland came to fix people’s hair and a young man played guitar to entertain families, he said. They even had a birthday party for a 5-year-old boy, complete with a donated cake from a local bakery.
“Two days ago we were in need of size 5 diapers,” he said. “Someone put it on Facebook and within an hour, four or five cars pulled up, two or three boxes. Boom, boom, boom, here you go.”
In all, 17 large fires still burned across the northern part of the state, with more than 9,000 firefighters attacking the flames using air tankers, helicopters and more than 1,000 fire engines.
“The emergency is not over, and we continue to work at it, but we are seeing some great progress,” said the state’s emergency operations director, Mark Ghilarducci.
Two of the largest fires in Napa and Sonoma counties were at least 25 per cent contained by Friday, which marked “significant progress,” said state fire Chief Ken Pimlott. But he cautioned that crews would face more gusty winds, low humidity and higher temperatures. Those conditions were expected to take hold later Friday and persist into the weekend.
Over the past 24 hours, crews arrived from Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, North and South Carolina, Oregon and Arizona. Other teams came from as far away as Canada and Australia.
The influx of outside help offered critical relief to firefighters who have been working with little rest since the blazes started.
“It’s like pulling teeth to get firefighters and law enforcement to disengage from what they are doing out there,” said Barry Biermann, Napa chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “They are truly passionate about what they are doing to help the public, but resources are coming in. That’s why you are seeing the progress we’re making.”
Dalton reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Paul Elias in Sonoma, Olga R. Rodriguez, Jocelyn Gecker and Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco and Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz also contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s complete wildfire coverage here: https://apnews.com/tag/Wildfires .