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'We just don't have words': At least 3 dead as California wildfires explode in wine country, forcing thousands to flee

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/29/2020 Susan Miller and Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY
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SAN FRANCISCO — Thousands of fire-sapped California residents were forced to flee a pair of new blazes on Monday that have killed at least three people, torched nearly 70,000 acres and prompted a state of emergency in three counties.

The breakneck Zogg Fire had burned through 31,200 acres near Redding in Northern California, while the Glass Fire had charred more than 36,200 acres in the Napa and Sonoma wine country north of San Francisco, according to Cal Fire. Both fires were at 0% containment as of Monday night.

a building on fire: Flames from the Glass Fire engulf the Glass Mountain Inn Sept. 27 in St. Helena, Calif. © Noah Berger, AP Flames from the Glass Fire engulf the Glass Mountain Inn Sept. 27 in St. Helena, Calif.

The fires, driven by gusty winds, burned several structures on Sunday night into Monday morning, including homes in Santa Rosa, as well as the Chateau Boswell winery and the nearby Black Rock Inn in the Napa County town of St. Helena. The area contains more than five dozen wineries.

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"That fire last night was moving at about 40 mph because of the wind, down the hill into the city of Santa Rosa, and we're hoping for better conditions here today,'' state Sen. Mike McGuire told KTVU-TV.

"We just don’t have words," said McGuire, a Democrat who represents Healdsburg in Sonoma County. “It’s an incredibly trying and emotional time right now.”

Shasta County Sheriff Eric Magrini confirmed three fatalities at the Zogg Fire during a Monday afternoon press conference, but declined to provide further details.

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Evacuation orders for more than 50,000 people were issued in Napa and Sonoma counties, where two smaller offshoots of the Glass Fire, the Shady and Boysen fires, merged to expand the blaze. Paul Lowenthal, a Cal Fire spokesman, said more than 13,000 homes were threatened in Santa Rosa.

The entire town of Calistoga, population 5,200, was put under evacuation orders on Monday night, according to Cal Fire.

"Tonight — and every night — we’re eternally grateful for the firefighters and first responders that are on the frontlines keeping our state safe. California heroes," tweeted Gov. Gavin Newsom, who declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and Shasta counties on Monday.

The wine country has been scarred by terrible fires in recent years, including the Tubbs Fire that killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,600 structures in 2017.

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin evacuated her home in the Oakmont community of Santa Rosa about 1 a.m. She is rebuilding a home damaged in the 2017 fires. Gorin told the San Francisco Chronicle that she is numb, and the situation feels surreal.

“It’s like God has no sympathy, no empathy for Sonoma County,” she said.

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In Sonoma, about 4,500 residents of the Oakmont Village senior living community fled the fast-moving fires – many in nightclothes and robes and gripping canes and walkers –as ash spewed in the sky, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. 

“It was scary, and I didn’t expect it to be so close,” Doris Tietze, 91, an Oakmont resident, told the Chronicle.

The fire season in California has taken a huge toll. Since the beginning of the year, there have been more than 8,100 wildfires that have burned more than 3.7 million acres, according to Cal Fire. Since Aug. 15 – when California’s fire activity elevated – 29 people have died, and more than 7,000 structures have been destroyed.

Crews are battling 25 major wildfires amid gusty winds and low humidity, Cal Fire said. 

“With low humidity, any fuel is just more prone to burn, especially with those dried-out fuels we have right now,” National Weather Service meteorologist Emily Heller said.

Forty miles to the south of the Zogg Fire, the enormous August Complex Fire continues to burn. The largest wildfire in state history, about 130 miles north of San Francisco, has charred more than 878,000 acres and was a major contributor to the dangerous air quality state residents were exposed to for days about three weeks ago and the apocalyptic skies over the Bay Area on Sept. 9.

Neither the August Complex nor the Creek Fire, which has incinerated more than 304,000 acres of a forest 60 miles northeast of Fresno, is 50% contained. They continue to spew smoke and foul up the air in their surroundings and, depending on the wind, even hundreds of miles away.

People with respiratory ailments are especially susceptible to that harmful air, said John Watson, a research professor of air quality science at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada.

Contributing: Steve Kiggins, USA TODAY; David Benda and Michele Chandler, Redding (Calif.) Record Searchlight; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'We just don't have words': At least 3 dead as California wildfires explode in wine country, forcing thousands to flee

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