Hundreds are missing as out-of-control California fires burn

Firefighters have not been able to contain the more than 20 fires raging across the state of California that have forced thousands to evacuate. At least 21 people have died but hundreds are unaccounted for, and Northern California residents are bracing for more damage as the wind picks up again. Judy Woodruff gets an update from Mina Kim of KQED.

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    Nearly 8,000 firefighters are struggling against wildfires across Northern California tonight, as winds kick up again.

    Officials report more than 20 fires have left at least 21 people dead and consumed at least 3,500 homes and businesses.

    We begin with a report from Mina Kim of PBS member station KQED.


    As the sun rose today, Sylvia Parkinsons (ph) surveyed the ash and burned metal that was once her home in Santa Rosa.

  • WOMAN:

    Nothing left. There's my steps coming right through my front patio that goes around. You can see my fireplace. It's just amazing. There's nothing left. You know what I did save? I saved our wedding rings. It's the one thing I grabbed.


    Dozens of homes in Parkinsons' Coffey Park neighborhood were swallowed by the fast-approaching fires that broke out Sunday night. And today, Sonoma County officials ordered new evacuations.

  • ROBERT GIORDANO, Sheriff, Sonoma County, California:

    If you have a place to go, go. The less people here, and the less people we have to evacuate, the better of we're going to be.


    Yesterday, winds from the south spread the flames north, but the winds shifted today and turned gusty again, pushing the fires south.

    In nearby Napa County, officials ordered evacuations for nearly half of Calistoga, a town of 5,000 people. Firefighters there say they, too, are bracing for windy, low-humidity conditions that fuel fires.

  • BARRY BIERMANN, Fire Chief, Napa County:

    We are expecting some extreme fire behavior and growth of our incidents currently. And that is going to lead us to challenges.


    All told, more than 20 fires are burning across Northern California. None are close to being contained, and most, if not all, are still spreading.

    Back in Coffey Park:

  • MAN:

    There had been this pile of drop cloths, because my son was going to paint the house over there that's no longer there.


    Steve Smith and his wife also evacuated Sunday night after waking to the smell of smoke. They came back today to find their home spared, only because a passerby had stopped to hose it down.

    Ten minutes down the road, at the Benovia Winery, co-owner Mike Sullivan was trying to keep things running.

    That's your home?

  • MIKE SULLIVAN, Co-Owner, Benovia Winery:



    Oh, my gosh. It's not even recognizable as a home.


    No, it's not.


    He's staying at the vineyard, after their home just up the hill was burned to the ground.


    Just this incredible noise that was nothing. It had to be fire. And so I ran back to the house. I woke up the kids, and we all left. We left within three minutes.


    Many others among Santa Rosa's 175,000 residents are now staying with friends and family or at shelters.

  • KATHY RUIZ, Santa Rosa Resident:

    I don't know how long I'm going to be here or what's happening at home. And that's what I'm starting to think about now, is, am I going to have a home to go back to?


    Desperate family members and friends are also searching for loved ones, with hundreds reported missing.


    So, we're running roughly 380 still unaccounted for. But, as you can, as the numbers change, we are finding people.


    In Southern California, another big fire has been burning near Anaheim since Monday, but improved conditions have allowed 1,600 firefighters to contain just under half of the blaze.

    Governor Jerry Brown surveyed the overall situation today from the state's fire operations center.

  • GOV. JERRY BROWN, D-Calif.:

    This will be tens of billions. So we have got to get ready to deal with this situation, and then prepare for others that will follow in the years to come.


    And in Washington, California Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, promised action on additional disaster funding.

  • REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY, R-Calif., House Majority Leader:

    It will take time to control these fires. But we will begin to rebuild.


    Meanwhile, as the fires continue to burn, there are growing health concerns. Officials warn that heavy smoke and ash could trigger asthma, bronchitis and other breathing problems. They're advising people in affected areas to stay inside when possible.


    That was reporter Mina Kim.

    I spoke to her just a short time ago, and began by asking about concerns over the number of people who are missing.


    Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said that there are about 380 people unaccounted for after they were able to locate 150. But there seems to be some confusion with the numbers, because earlier this year the sheriff had reported that 670 were missing.

    So the sheriff acknowledged the discrepancy in the numbers and said that he was going to try to clear that up at the next briefing. He does remain hopeful that a significant number of those who are missing, it's because they are unable to communicate with loved ones that they are safe because of the limited cell phone service here, and also the fact that there are thousands who still remain without power.


    We know the toll was very serious. And you were telling us you were there when they discovered someone who had not made it.


    Yes, so we were at a mobile home park here in Santa Rosa called Journey's End.

    And while we were there, police started cordoning off one of the burnt mobile homes. And then they told it was because they believe a body was in the rubble. So, while, you know, law enforcement officials are optimistic that it's related to communication problems, there will definitely be some who are missing because they were unable to survive this fire, Judy.


    And finally, Mina, this hits close to home. You have your own home in Napa County, and the fire, you were telling us, has gotten very close to you.


    Last night was a tough night for Napa County, especially in the area west of the city of Napa. They had to expand the evacuation zone there significantly because the winds have shifted.

    And as you can probably tell now, the winds are picking up here in Sonoma County. And it just underscores the volatility of the situation here. This fire, Judy, is very far from being under control.

    And, in fact, the sheriff's department has stopped limited escorts that they were doing earlier today to allow people to retrieve medicines and other critical provisions, because they're just too worried that it's getting too dangerous now with this wind.


    Clearly a long way to go before this is resolved in any way.

    Mina Kim, thank you very much.


    You're welcome, Judy.

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