SANTA ROSA, Calif. ― Three days after catastrophic wildfires first began scorching Northern California’s wine country, authorities say the conditions are likely to deteriorate still further.
“It’s actually getting worse,” Sonoma Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Spencer Crum said on Wednesday afternoon. “The winds have picked up today, and we have more evacuations.”
Since late Sunday evening, wildfires in Sonoma, Napa and neighboring counties have spread rapidly, killing at least 23 people, injuring more than 100 and leaving hundreds missing, according to the Sonoma Sheriff’s Office. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes after mandatory evacuations.
Worsening wind conditions on Wednesday caused flames to spread further, leading authorities to issue more evacuation orders and warn that some of the smaller fires might merge into one large fire.
For some of the firefighters who have braved the conflagration, the devastation has hit close to home.
“I’ve been in the fire service for over 30 years, and I’m horrified at what I’ve seen,” said Cal Fire public information officer Jerry Fernandez, who grew up in the Sonoma area. He explained that the fire is at “zero percent containment,” meaning it is not controlled, is continuing to spread, and that greater winds could make the situation worse in the coming hours and days.
“We are at the worst conditions you could have right now,” Fernandez said.
One of the hardest-hit areas was the neighborhood of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, a suburban area with a diverse mix of people.
In the blocks around Coffey Lane and San Miguel Road, block after block of land is charred, with only a few burned trees, cars, chimneys and bed frames left standing. People walked through the area looking at the devastation, many with paper masks covering their faces to protect from the smoke-filled air.
“We lost everything ― three cars. We took the cats, some paperwork, but that’s it,” said 26-year old Maryanne Rahab, as she stood in the rubble of the house she had been renting in Coffey Park for over a year with her boyfriend, Sean Parsons. They’ve stayed at a friend’s place since they evacuated early Monday, and are hoping to get reimbursed through renter’s insurance.
“What’s next? I don’t know,” she added. “It’s one hour at a time, because even one day is too much.”
In the Coffey neighborhood, 20-year-old Kat Keller searched through the rubble of her family home on Wednesday, looking for one of her cats who disappeared during the evacuation.
“We lost everything,” Keller said. “Everything I have ever owned: baby photos, family videos, it’s all gone. I’m just glad my family made it out alive.”
Her family’s plan moving forward is to stay with friends and family, until they get reimbursed by her insurance, just like most of the residents HuffPost spoke to who had lost their homes.
“I know someone in Coffey Park who rented for 30 years and didn’t have renter’s insurance,” Keller said. “So she has nothing now. People who didn’t have insurance… I’m really grateful our family gets our home rebuilt eventually, but a lot of people don’t have that.”
Around 60 percent of American homes are underinsured, according to a New York Times report citing data from CoreLogic, a company based in Irvine, California.
As Keller searched through the ashes yesterday, a young woman from Marin County came by, she said, asking how she could help. Keller told her that she was pregnant, so the young woman offered to bring by some baby items for her.
“Complete strangers, that’s what’s getting all of us through this,” Keller said. “Everyone reaching out and being like, ‘I don’t even know you, but I’m going to treat you like family.’ It means so much.”
Many of those who evacuated are staying with family or friends, but those with nowhere else to go have sought refuge in the dozens of Red Cross shelters opened in the area. As of Wednesday, that included more than 4,400 people.
A lot of those who fled evacuation areas have not been able to return to check on their homes. Many areas remain closed off and may remain so until next week, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said in a press conference on Wednesday.
As of Wednesday morning, at least 3,500 homes and businesses had been destroyed.
If you want to help people affected by the fires, you can volunteer or donate to local groups.