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California wildfires claim at least 17 lives and destroy thousands of homes

John McColgan | USDA | Public Domain
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Fire kills elderly couple, burns wineries, farms and marijuana fields

The death toll from wildfires burning in northern California is up to 17 and may go higher, as almost 200 persons are missing.

Two thousand homes have been destroyed or damaged, and hundreds of people have been hospitalized because of the fires, which broke out Sunday night.

As of 7 a.m. Tuesday, the two biggest blazes — the Tubbs fire and the Atlas Peak fire in Napa County — had burned 27,000 and 25,000 acres, respectively, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Propelled by 50-mile-per-hour winds, the fires threatened Santa Rosa, Napa and Calistoga, the New York Times reported. About 20,000 people evacuated as the fires overtook their towns. Many people reported not having much time to get away, as fires seemed to spread quickly and with little warning.

“I was watching a movie with my 19-year-old granddaughter and I smelled smoke, and I looked out the window to see flames approaching,” said Maureen Grinnell, 77, who lived in the hills north of Napa with her husband, Sheldon, 89. “By the time I started to back the car out of the garage, the house was already on fire. I drove down the road through smoke with flames on both sides.”

Among the victims of the fire were Sara and Charles Rippey, who died together when a fast-moving fire overtook their house in Napa, and they were unable to escape. Sara, 98, and Charles, 100, had known one another for 90 years and been married for 75.

Also lost in the fires were multiple vineyards, wineries, farms (including marijuana farms), and at least one dairy.

But the James Cole Winery, a small-scale maker of high-priced cabernets, was saved, thanks to owner James Harder’s friends. When Harder saw a wall of flame 20 to 30 feet high descending a hillside toward his property, he and six of his friends formed a bucket brigade to douse the fire through the night with water from a 10,000-gallon tank meant to irrigate his vineyard.

“We just thought, ‘Keep working, keep working,’” Harder told the Times. “We would have lost everything if not for our friends.”

Throughout the area, it’s unclear how much of the season’s grape harvest was destroyed. The cause of fires throughout the state seemed to be a combination of changing weather factors.

Across the state, 17 large wildfires were still burning Tuesday, covering 115,000 acres, said Chief Ken Pimlott of Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency.He said that the cause of the fires was still unclear and would be investigated, but he said that 95% of fires in the state were caused by humans in some manner. Even a small spark in windy, dry conditions could grow quickly into a large fire.

An unusually wet winter produced ample brush, and the state’s hottest summer on record dried it to tinder, the Times explained.

Crews were continuing to use several means to battle the fires, including dropping water from a 747 tanker jet.

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