Wildfires Kill at Least 15 People in California

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) — The flames that raced across California wine country left little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. House after house is gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark sites that were once family homes.

The wildfires burned so hot that windows and tire rims melted off cars, leaving many vehicles resting on their steel axles. In one driveway, the glass backboard of a basketball hoop melted, dripped and solidified like a mangled icicle.

Newly homeless residents of Northern California took stock of their shattered lives Tuesday while the blazes that have killed at least 15 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses kept burning. Hundreds more firefighters joined the battle against the uncontained flames.

“This is just pure devastation, and it’s going to take us a while to get out and comb through all of this,” said Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He said the state had “several days of fire weather conditions to come.”

The wildfires already rank among the five deadliest in California history, and officials expected the death toll to increase as the scope of destruction becomes clear. At least 185 people were injured during the blazes that started Sunday night. Nearly 200 people were reported missing in Sonoma County alone.

Seventeen wildfires raged Tuesday across parts of seven counties. Fire crews and other resources were being rushed in from other parts of the state and Nevada.

More than 240 members of the California National Guard helped ferry fuel to first responders because so many gas stations were without power. Guard members were also helping with medical evacuations and security at evacuation centers, said Maj. Gen. David Baldwin.

In addition to knocking out electricity, the blazes damaged or destroyed 77 cellular sites, disrupting communication services that officials were rushing to restore, said Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci.

The fires that started Sunday night moved so quickly that thousands of people were forced to flee with only a few minutes of warning. Some did not get out in time.

“It’s literally like it exploded. These people ran out of their homes literally with minutes notice, barely with the clothes on their back,” Pimlott said, adding that authorities didn’t have time to give more notice. “They burned so quickly, there was not time to notify everybody.”

Among the victims were 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his wife, Sara, who was 98. The couple was married for 75 years and lived in a residential neighborhood in Napa.

Their son, Mike Rippey, said he and his siblings couldn’t imagine how either parent would have navigated life if just one had survived the flames.

“We knew there’s no way they would ever be happy, whoever was the last one. So they went together, and that’s the way it worked,” he said stoically.

A thick, smoky haze cloaked much of Napa and Sonoma counties, where neighborhoods hit by the fires were completely leveled. Authorities warned residents not to return to their houses for safety reasons, citing the risk of exposed electrical and gas lines and unstable structures including trees.

About 3,200 people were staying in 28 shelters across Napa and Sonoma counties.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, or what’s happening at home,” said Santa Rosa evacuee Kathy Ruiz, who had found her way to a center at Sonoma County Fairgrounds. “That’s what I’m starting to think about now, am I going to have a home to go back to?”

In the Santa Rosa suburb known as Coffey Park, Robyn Pellegrini let out a cry of grief as she approached the smoldering ruins of the duplex she had shared with her husband and their 6-year-old son. Daniel Pellegrini held his wife before they went searching for something they could salvage for their child.

With bare hands, they sifted through the remains of the exterior wall, which had collapsed into dust inside the house and covered all the other debris in their boy’s room. They found a stuffed animal — charred but still recognizable as a turtle. Robyn Pellegrini let out joyful gasps when they found pieces of his rock collection.

A young boy across the street, whose home was spared, brought over one of his own stuffed animals to share.

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