At least 21 dead, hundreds missing as winds fan California wildfires
At least 21 dead, hundreds missing as winds fan California wildfires
Nearly two dozen blazes spanning eight counties have charred around 170,000 acres (68,797 hectares). Flames erupted on Sunday night when gale force winds toppled power lines across the region, possibly igniting one of the deadliest wildfire outbreaks in California history.
Flames were spread rapidly by hot, dry “Diablo” winds — similar to Southern California’s Santa Ana winds — that blew into northern California toward the Pacific on Sunday night.
The official cause of ignition has not been determined. But electric wires knocked down by those same winds may have sparked the conflagration, according to Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
“That is definitely a possibility, he told Reuters. “Power lines are a common cause of fires during wind events.”
Berlant said some of the victims in northern California were asleep when the fast-moving fires broke out, igniting their homes before they could escape. At least 20,000 people remained under evacuation as the fires raged largely unchecked for a third day, belching palls of smoke that engulfed the region and drifted south over the San Francisco Bay area, where some residents donned face masks.
The entire town of Calistoga, a Napa Valley community of some 5,000 residents spared from advancing flames the first night of the fire, was ordered evacuated on Wednesday evening, as the county sheriff’s office warned that conditions had worsened.
More than 550 people were still reported unaccounted for in Sonoma County on Wednesday morning, said Jennifer Laroque, a county emergency operations center spokeswoman.
It was unclear how many of the missing might be actual fire victims rather than evacuees who merely failed to check in with authorities after fleeing their homes. Officials urged displaced residents to let their family members know they were safe.
The Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa, the largest city in the wine country region, was particularly hard hit by one of the fiercest blazes, the so-called Tubbs fire. Block after block of some neighborhoods were virtually obliterated with nothing left but charred debris, broken walls, chimneys and the steel frames of burned-out cars.
“It’s like driving through a war zone,” J.J. Murphy, 22, one of thousands of evacuees, said of the area around his home in the Sonoma Valley community of Glen Ellen.
Murphy, five relatives, a bird, a dog and two cats piled into their camper van to flee on Monday, he said.
“It’s crazy how in just a few hours a place I’ve recognized all my life I can’t recognize,” he said at a roadside food stop in the town of Sonoma.
In the town of Napa on the first night of a blaze dubbed the Atlas fire, nearly 50 people who were in danger of being overrun by flames were rescued by the crews of two California Highway Patrol helicopters working in tandem during a seven-hour aerial evacuation operation.
The weather gave firefighters a bit of a respite on Tuesday as cooler temperatures, lower winds and coastal fog enabled them to make headway against the flames. Fire crews labored on Wednesday to strengthen containment lines as winds picked up again.
“We’re not out of the woods and we’re not going to be out of the woods for a great number of days to come,” Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), said at a news conference.
In addition to high winds, fires were stoked by an abundance of thick brush and other vegetation left tinder dry by a summer of hot, dry weather and months with little or no rainfall. The cause of the fires remained under investigation.
Matt Nauman, a spokesman for the region’s main utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, acknowledged that fallen power lines were widespread during the “historic wind event,” which he said packed some hurricane-strength gusts in excess of 75 miles per hour.
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At least 11 people were killed by the Tubbs fire in Sonoma County alone, officials said. It is the deadliest single California wildfire since 2003, when the so-called Cedar fire killed 15 people in San Diego, according to state data.
The latest overall death toll of 21, including six fatalities in Mendocino County and two more each in Napa and Yuba counties, marks the greatest loss of life from a California wildfire event in 26 years, since 25 people perished in a firestorm that swept the Oakland Hills in October 1991.
The deadliest wildfire on record in California dates back to October 1933, when 29 lives were lost in the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles.
Officials identified the dead in Napa County as 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his 98-year-old wife, Sarah. His body was found outside where his wife’s bedroom once stood, their son, Mike Rippey, told local television.
“He was trying to get from his room to her room,” he said. “He never made it.”
Wildfires have damaged or demolished at least 13 Napa Valley wineries, a trade group for vintners there said on Tuesday. But experts say smoke rather than flames may pose a greater risk to the delicate grapes still waiting to be picked.
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in several northern counties, as well as in Orange County in Southern California, where a fire in Anaheim destroyed 15 structures and damaged 12.
Fury clouds funeral plans for Italy bridge victims
- The collapse of the Morandi bridge, a decades-old viaduct that crumbled in a storm on Tuesday killing at least 38 people, has stunned and angered the country
- According to La Stampa newspaper, the families of 17 victims have refused to take part in the state funeral, while a further seven have yet to decide whether they will attend
GENOA: Grieving relatives wept over the coffins of dozens of victims of Genoa’s bridge disaster Friday amid growing fury over a planned state funeral, while rescuers pressed on with their tireless search for those missing in the rubble.
The collapse of the Morandi bridge, a decades-old viaduct that crumbled in a storm on Tuesday killing at least 38 people, has stunned and angered the country, with Italian media reporting that some outraged families would shun Saturday’s official ceremonies.
Italy’s government has blamed the operator of the viaduct for the tragedy and threatened to strip the firm of its contracts, while the country’s creaking infrastructure has come under fresh scrutiny.
Authorities plan a state funeral service on Saturday at a hall in Genoa, coinciding with a day of mourning.
Relatives who gathered at the hall on Friday embraced and prayed over lines of coffins, many adorned with flowers and photographs of the dead.
But according to La Stampa newspaper, the families of 17 victims have refused to take part, while a further seven have yet to decide whether they will attend.
“It is the state who has provoked this; let them not show their faces, the parade of politicians is shameful,” the press cited the mother of one of four young Italians from Naples who died.
The father of another of the dead from Naples took to social media to vent his anger.
“My son will not become a number in the catalogue of deaths caused by Italian failures,” said his grieving father, Roberto.
“We do not want a farce of a funeral but a ceremony at home.”
Despite fading hopes of finding survivors, rescue workers said they had not given up as they resumed the dangerous operation to search through the unstable mountains of debris.
“Is there anyone there? Is there anyone there?” one firefighter shouted into a cavity dug out of the piles of concrete and twisted metal, in a video published by the emergency services.
Between 10 and 20 people are still missing, according to Genoa’s chief prosecutor.
Ten people remain in hospital, six of them in a serious condition.
Hundreds of rescuers are using cranes and bulldozers to cut up and remove the biggest slabs of the fallen bridge, which slammed down onto railway tracks along with dozens of vehicles.
“We are trying to find pockets in the rubble where people could be — alive or not,” fire official Emanuele Gissi told AFP.
Officials say about 1,000 people in all are working on the disaster site, 350 of them firefighters.
The populist government has accused infrastructure giant Autostrade per L’Italia of failing to invest in sufficient maintenance and said it would seek to revoke its lucrative contracts.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini demanded that the company offer up to 500 million euros ($570 million) to help families and local government deal with the aftermath of the disaster.
The dead also include children, one as young as eight, and three Chileans and four French nationals.
The French nationals, all in their 20s, had traveled to Italy for a music festival, and other victims included a family setting off on holiday and a couple returning from their California honeymoon.
More than 600 people were evacuated from around a dozen apartments beneath the remaining shard of bridge.
On Thursday evening the first residents of some buildings in the affected area were allowed to return home, though others are too badly damaged to save.
The Morandi viaduct dates from the 1960s and has been riddled with structural problems for decades, leading to expensive maintenance and severe criticism from engineering experts.
Its collapse prompted fears over aging infrastructure across the world.
Italy has announced a year-long state of emergency in the region.
Autostrade, which operates and maintains nearly half of Italy’s motorways, estimates it will take five months to rebuild the bridge.
It denies scrimping on motorway maintenance, saying it has invested over one billion euros a year in “safety, maintenance and strengthening of the network” since 2012.
Atlantia, the holding company of Autostrade which is 30 percent owned by iconic fashion brand Benetton, has warned that the government would have to refund the value of the contract, which runs until at least 2038.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Autostrade “had the duty and obligation to assure the maintenance of this viaduct and the security of all those who traveled on it.”
The disaster is the latest in a string of bridge collapses in Italy, where infrastructure generally is showing the effects of a faltering economy.
Senior government figures have also lashed out at austerity measures imposed by the European Union, saying they restrict investment.
But the European Commission said it had given Rome billions of euros to fix infrastructure.