A spate of wildfires fanned by strong winds swept through northern California’s wine country on Monday, leaving at least 10 people dead, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and chasing some 20,000 people from their dwellings.
The deaths marked the first wildfire-related fatalities in California this year, according to state officials, and are believed to represent the largest loss of life from a single incident or cluster blazes in the state in about a decade.
Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties, encompassing some of the state’s prime wine-making areas, as the blazes raged unchecked and engulfed the region in thick, billowing smoke that drifted south into the San Francisco Bay area.
He later extended the declaration to include four more northern California counties and Orange County in Southern California.
Sonoma County bore the brunt of the fatalities, with seven fire-related deaths confirmed there, according to the sheriff’s department. Two others died in Napa County and one more in Mendocino County, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).
Two hospitals were forced to evacuate in Sonoma County, state officials said.
Thousands of firefighters battled wind gusts in excess of 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) that have rapidly spread 15 separate wildfires across some 73,000 acres in northern California since erupting late Sunday night, according to CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant.
About 1,500 homes and commercial buildings have been destroyed throughout the region, Ken Pimlott, director of CalFire, said at a news conference.
San Francisco authorities issued an air quality alert due to smoke from the fires, which residents said they could smell since early in the morning.
In addition to potential damage to vineyards from fire itself, experts say sustained exposure to heavy smoke can taint unharvested grapes, and Oliai said wine makers in the area are nervous.
The region threatened by fires overlaps an area accounting for roughly 12 percent of California’s overall wine production by volume but also where its most highly valued grapes are grown, said Anita Oberholster, a professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis.
Source: International News agencies