California fires: At least 10 dead as 20,000 flee flames whipped up by strong winds

California fires: At least 10 dead as 20,000 flee flames whipped up by strong windsRaging wildfires in California's wine country have claimed at least 10 lives and forced thousands to flee, authorities said on Monday. More than a dozen wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through the region, destroying at least 1,500 homes and businesses and sending an estimated 20,000 people on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames.  At least 10 people died and two were seriously injured in the blazes that started on Sunday, fire officials said. The flames were burning "at explosive rates" because of 50 mph winds, said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Fourteen large fires were burning, spread over a 200-mile region north of San Francisco from Napa in the south to Redding in the north. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties. Mandatory evacuations were ordered after the blazes broke out late Sunday. Long lines formed at gas stations when many families heeded a middle-of-the-night call to get out. A representative of Pacific Gas & Electric said 114,000 customers were without power.  A man leaving Santiago Canyon College in Orange, California looks back as strong Santa Ana winds blow fire and smoke towards the college Credit: AFP "It was an inferno like you've never seen before," said Marian Williams, who caravanned with neighbors before dawn as one of the wildfires reached the vineyards and ridges at her small Sonoma County town of Kenwood.  Ms Williams could feel the heat of her fire through the car as she fled. "Trees were on fire like torches," she said.  With downed trees or flames blocking routes, Sonoma County residents struggled to figure out what roads to take.  Many of the fires spread suddenly, whipped by furious winds.  Santa Rosa, the largest city in the fire area with a population of about 175,000, was hit hard. The city lost a Kmart and an unknown number of other businesses and homes as the blaze shut down schools and forced patients at two hospitals to evacuate. A Hilton Hotel was reduced to smouldering ruins.  Firefighters try to extinguish a blazing house as they battle wildfires in Anaheim Hills, California Credit: The Orange County Register via AP "Imagine a wind-whipped fire burning at explosive rates. This is 50 miles per hour. Literally it's burning into the city of Santa Rosa … burning box stores," Mr Pimlott said. "This is traditionally California's worst time for fires."  Barry Biermann, Napa County Fire Chief, said the fires had burned more than 68 square miles (176 sq kilometres). Crews had not yet been able to contain a fire heading toward downtown Napa.  "Right now, with these conditions, we can't get ahead of this fire and do anything about the forward progress," Mr Biermann said.  Smoke was thick as far away as San Francisco, 60 miles (96 kilometers) south of the Sonoma County fire.  Resident Louis Reavis views his burned classic Oldsmobile at his home in Napa,California Credit: AFP John Dean was driving to his Sonoma County home early Monday when he saw a house on fire along the road. Soon he saw more houses engulfed in flames.  "I mean blazing, falling down on fire," he said.  Mr Dean sped to his home in Kenwood, alerted neighbours and fled to the town of Sonoma. He was one of hundreds of evacuees who streamed into a 24-hour Safeway market overnight, while authorities set up an official evacuation centre.  Maureen McGowan was house-sitting for her brother near Kenwood, and said both of the homes on his property were on fire when she left. At the Safeway, she pointed to her feet, still in slippers. She had fled so fast that she hadn't put on her shoes.  Belia Ramos, chairwoman of the Napa County Board of Supervisors, said "tremendous" wind gusts were making the fire unpredictable. "It's something that we're having to be very cautious about."  "We're focusing on making evacuations and trying to keep people safe. We are not prepared to start counting," she said shortly after sunrise.  >20,000 people evacuated and >1,500 homes burned so far across California—one of the worst wildfire days in history.— Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) October 9, 2017 Ann Dubay, a spokeswoman for the Sonoma County Emergency Operations Centre, said the area where the largest fire started was relatively rural but the flames "went through many, many neighbourhoods," and authorities did not know how many structures were gone.  Emergency lines were inundated with callers reporting smoke, prompting officials to ask that the public "only use 911 if they see actual unattended flames, or are having another emergency."  Business owner Andy Lahiji stood before a burned-out warehouse where he said he had lost his inventory of furniture and other property. He said it took firetrucks ages to arrive Monday morning.  "They said, 'We have so many other places to go, you have to wait.' And then when they came, they had only a couple of guys," he told the station. "I feel very sad. I'm glad nobody got hurt. Hopefully insurance takes care of it." 

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