Ferocious wildfires turn Northern California neighborhoods to ashes

Wildfires are being blamed for 15 deaths in Northern California and more than 2,000 homes and buildings have burned down. President Trump promised federal support for the victims, but California already awaits backlogged disaster assistance. Special correspondent Tonya Mosely of KQED reports, then Judy Woodruff talks to Mark Ghilarducci of the California State Office of Emergency Services.

Read the Full Transcript


    The toll from the fires racing across Northern California is climbing tonight. At least 15 people have died so far. More than 2,000 homes and buildings have burned down, and hundreds more firefighters have been called to action.

    Tonya Mosley of PBS member station KQED begins our coverage.


    It's already one of the deadliest, most destructive outbreaks of wildfires in California's history.

    From above, tanker planes bombed the flames with water and retardant today, and, on the ground, an army of firefighters hoped for help from cooler weather and lighter winds. The fires erupted Sunday night, and their speed and ferocity caught homeowners and officials off-guard.

  • JONATHAN COX, Battalion Chief, Cal Fire:

    The first 24, 36 hours of these incidents were fairly unprecedented in California, right? To have so many fires burning in this way, in such a condensed area, with a big population was fairly unprecedented.


    Causes are still unknown, but the fires sprang up almost simultaneously across nine counties and a 200-square-mile area of Northern California's wine country.

  • ALYSSA O’GORMAN, Calistoga Resident:

    This is my neighborhood in flames, completely in flames.


    The flames were fed by dry brush and driven by 50-mile-an-hour winds. Some people awoke to honking cars, their neighbors sounding the alarm as they fled without much more than they could carry.

    The city of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County was among the hardest hit. The Tubbs fire jumped a six-lane highway and barreled through the city of 175,000. It left behind a charred shopping center and cars, melted from the heat.

    OMAR BUENO, Santa Rosa Resident We don't recognize the place. And we used to actually go over there and hang out, but I don't even know if we're going to do that ever again. I just hope we can all come back as a community and get together and help everybody.


    The flames struck at all ends of the economic spectrum, incinerating the city's Hilton Hotel, as well as homes in this mobile home park. Part of a high school was burned, and hospitals had to be evacuated.

    In nearby Napa County, the Atlas fire burned through the vineyards and wineries, the very heart of the region. And officials said this morning an elderly couple died in their home, unable to evacuate. Charles and Sara Rippey, 100 and 98 years old, had recently celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary.

    Across the region, scores of others are still missing. Some who survived the onslaught have begun returning to the remains, whole neighborhoods reduced to ashes.

  • MAN:

    Been here 25 years. It was a great neighborhood. It's going to be a lot of work getting it back.


    Our prayers are with you, and we will be with you every day until we put these fires out and stand with these families to rebuild these communities.


    In Sacramento today, Vice President Mike Pence pledged federal assistance. But state officials say California already has a backlog of federal disaster assistance.


    Napa County still hasn't received all the funding that they are due from the last natural disaster that we experienced. That's why it's incredibly important that Congress do its job and appropriate the funds.


    Meanwhile, fire officials say, with so many fires burning, they're strained to the limit.

  • BARRY BIERMANN, Fire Chief, Napa County:

    We have folks on the fire line starting their third shift right now that have not been relieved, because there's folks not available to come in, with so many fires in the area.


    And, in Southern California, another fire is raging again today near Anaheim, 30 minutes south from Los Angeles. The 7,500-acre blaze has swallowed up homes and buildings.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Tonya Mosley in Santa Rosa, California.


    Later, President Trump promised full federal support for the fire victims. He said, "We will be there for you."

    We turn now to Mark Ghilarducci. He is director of the California State Office of Emergency Services. I spoke with him just a short time ago, and began by asking how large an area has been affected so far.

    MARK GHILARDUCCI, Director, California Office of Emergency Services: Well, right now, I think we have got roughly about 100,000 acres that have been scorched by the fires, and we still have a number of these fires at no or very little containment. So, it's still a very active fire situation.


    Why so little progress in fighting them?


    Well, a big part of it is because, you know, we continue to have what we call red flag wind conditions.

    These are wind — this is a wind event that has continued with high gusts or sustained winds that continues to push the fire out in front and expand the fire's perimeter. And so that makes it a challenge when you're dealing with a fire like this. And the other part is, it's some very, very rough terrain. And so it's a combination of efforts.

    And that's been a big problem with the overall effort during this particular fire siege.


    So I was reading that this yesterday was considered one of the worst days in California's history when it comes to fires. Is that your experience, that this is that much worse than what you have seen before?


    Well, I would characterize it as being one of the worst that we have seen.

    California has experienced some very catastrophic fires, you know, certainly, the Oakland Hills fire back in the '90s, where several thousand homes were burned down. We had the Cedar fire, I think, it was in 2003 in San Diego. We have had our share of major fires in the past, and — but this one obviously, with the number of structures that have been lost and unfortunately the lives that have been lost, the injuries, will rate up there as one of the worst we have had.


    We are hearing about the people who are missing. How much concern is there about people you can't find?


    Well, it's a huge concern for us, and it is a major priority that we're collectively working with the local authorities, with our — with the Cal Fire units and the fire teams that are out there.

    This fire came roaring through. It came roaring through in the middle of the night. Many people were asleep. And, you know, it's highly conceivable that people were unable to escape the flames. And so it's going to be very, very important for us to go through and ensure that we are crosschecking where people who are missing with possibly still being in some of these buildings.

    So the search operations that are going on now will continue for several days, until we can be 100 percent sure we have accounted for everybody.


    We heard the Napa County fire chief say that his resources were stretched to the limit. Are they getting the resources they need from the state and anyplace else?


    They are.

    Resources — you know, certainly, it's a big state. And we have close to 4,000 personnel assigned to these fires. That's fire and law enforcement and emergency management and emergency medical. We have our California National Guard.

    All these assets have been deployed. And, of course, California has the most robust mutual aid system in the world. We utilize it regularly, and this has been — this summer has been no different than in the past. We have been very, very active and very, very busy.

    And we have been working with the fire agencies throughout California. We have fire agencies as far south as San Diego and as far north as Siskiyou County coming in to assist Sonoma County.

    But we have other fires going on in the state as well. So it's always a balance of where we're going to place resources. And we prioritize these fires, and we provide that support to the fires with the highest priority.


    What's your expectation at this point, Mr. Ghilarducci? Do you just simply have to wait for these winds to die down in order to get control of these fires?


    Well, no.

    We are actively — you know, we have hand crews and crews on the ground that are actively working to suppress the fires. We have — during the days, we have done a tremendous amount of air support. We have a 747. We have our large air tankers. We have retardant-dropping aircraft.

    All of those are actively working on the fires, and they are having an effect. But, you know, there's a lot of fuel, and these wildfires pushed by wind can be very challenging.

    The big hope — and we understand the winds are going to die down now for a day or so, but we look to the forecast, and we know there is another wind event that's shortly happening. So we're expecting that, and we're gearing up for that appropriately.


    Mark Ghilarducci, the California Office of Emergency Services director.

    And I'm sorry you have been having trouble with your earpiece, but thank you very much.


    I apologize for that. Thank you very much.

Listen to this Segment