SONOMA, Calif. – Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California early Monday, sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes and businesses burned in wine country. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties as officials estimated the fire had wiped out “well in excess of” 50 structures.
Brown said in his statement that the multiple fires “threatened thousands of homes.”
Mandatory evacuations were ordered in the wine country north of San Francisco Bay and elsewhere after blazes broke out late Sunday, sending many into a middle-of-the-night scramble to get out. There were long lines at gas stations as many received the call to evacuate.
“It was an inferno like you’ve never seen before,” said Marian Williams, who caravanned with neighbors through flames before dawn as one of the wildfires reached the vineyards and ridges at her small Sonoma County town of Kenwood.
Williams could feel the heat of her fire through the car as she fled.
“Trees were on fire like torches,” she said.
With so many fires, residents of Sonoma County struggled to figure out what roads to take, finding downed trees or flames blocking some routes.
Fires also burned just to the east in the Napa County wine country as well as in Yuba, Butte and Nevada counties — all north of the state capital. Cal Fire tweeted that as many as 8,000 homes were threatened in Nevada County, which lies on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.
Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said more than 50 structures had been destroyed, but there were no reports of injuries or deaths. Biermann said the fires had burned more than 68 square miles (176 sq. kilometers) as of the morning. He said crews had no containment on the quick-moving fire.
“Right now with these conditions we can’t get ahead of this fire and do anything about the forward progress,” Biermann said.
Smoke was thick in San Francisco, 60 miles (96 kilometers) south of the Sonoma County fire.
Sonoma County resident John Dean was driving home early Monday when “I looked over and saw a house on fire” along the road. Soon he saw more houses engulfed in flames.
“I mean blazing, falling down on fire,” he said.
Dean sped to his Kenwood home, alerted neighbors, and fled to the town of Sonoma. He was one of hundreds of evacuees who streamed into a 24-hour Safeway market overnight, while authorities set up an official evacuation center.
Maureen McGowan was house-sitting for a brother near Kenwood, and said both of the homes on his property were on fire when she left. At the Safeway, she pointed to her feet, still in slippers. She had fled so fast that she hadn’t put on her shoes.
Belia Ramos, chairwoman of the Napa County Board of Supervisors, said officials did not yet have a count on how many properties were affected, either by the fire directly or by evacuations.
“We’re focusing on making evacuations and trying to keep people safe. We are not prepared to start counting. Certainly with day just breaking now, we are starting to see the structures that are affected,” she said shortly after sunrise.
“The gusts are very, very — they’re tremendous and it’s what makes this fire unpredictable. It’s something that we’re having to be very cautious about,” she said.
Ann Dubay, a spokeswoman for Sonoma County Emergency Operations Center, said the area where the largest fire started was relatively rural “but it went through many, many neighborhoods and we’re sure that structures have burned, we don’t know how many we don’t have a count yet.”
“Probably many homes and businesses, in the outskirts of Santa Rosa and the city itself,” she said. “It’s a huge, huge tragedy, a huge, huge loss for so many people.”
Emergency lines were inundated with callers reporting smoke in the area, prompting officials to ask that the public “only use 911 if they see actual unattended flames, or are having another emergency.”
Business owner Andy Lahiji stood before a burned out storage warehouse where he said he had lost his inventory of furniture and other property. He said it took firetrucks ages to arrive Monday morning.
“They said we have so many other places to go, you have to wait. And then when they came, they had only a couple of guys,” he told the station. “I really, I feel very sad. I’m glad nobody got hurt. Hopefully insurance takes care of it.”
The National Weather Service said widespread wind gusts between 35 mph and 50 mph were observed in the north San Francisco Bay region and isolated spots hit 70 mph. The winds were expected to subside at midday.
Community centers, the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and other local centers were opened for evacuees.
Associated Press writers Juliet Williams in San Francisco, John Antczak in Los Angeles and Martha Bellisle in Seattle contributed to this report.