California wildfires: Woman dies in husband's arms while hiding in swimming pool
In neighbourhood after neighbourhood residents of the city of Santa Rosa - in California's wine country - are returning to their homes confronted by the devastation left by fires blazing across the state.
At least 17 blazes are raging across California, having burned about 115,000 acres over eight counties since Sunday, initially fanned by winds ranging from 50 to 60 miles an hour. The fires have claimed at least 15 lives, including a 100-year-old man and his 98-year-old wife who died in their burning home. More than 100 people are said to be still missing and dozens have been injured.
Mass evacuations pushed people out of their homes in the middle of the night, and residents returned to a patchwork of charred chaos.
The Nugent family pulled into a driveway that now leads up to a blackened pile where their house once stood. The air above still shimmered with heat.
“Things can be repaired. Everyone is fine, and that's the most important thing”, said Christopher Nugent, 54, who had about five minutes to gather up his family of seven — and two dogs — and leave. Still, he said, “we never anticipated it would come into town itself”.
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Two car frames sat amid the detritus - one had been in the family for decade. Mr Nugent plucked a surprisingly intact Christmas ornament from then rubble; one of his sons found a ramekin. A scorched washing machine and drier were still standing, as was a stone bird bath.
“These folks have lost everything. When you look at the destruction, it’s literally like it exploded,” said Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott about the fires at a news conference. “Some of these folks were literally just sleeping at home in bed and had no idea,” he added.
Some had been spared the worst and were left marvelling at the randomness of the destruction. In the Coffey Park area, the flames left a scorched moonscape of twisted cars and smoking rubble across the street from houses with their gardens intact.
“It's just crazy to see how people got so lucky”, said 24-year-old Clara Gutierres, who had navigated blocked-off streets on foot to find her house intact, one street away from the Nugent's house. She spoke through a white smoke mask. “You cross the street, it's like a war zone. It's so devastating”.
Ms Gutierres and her husband Paul woke up at 1:30 on Monday morning to see much of their street consumed in flames. Somehow, their home survived - but it is encircled by devastation.
Directly across from the structure, husks of cars and brick chimneys were all that remained. The backyard adjoining the property was a heap of ash and twisted metal. Water trickled from broken pipe-ends. “Our whole neighbourhood's gone”, Paul said.
Tyler Bowman, 26, knew his house was probably gone. But still he was trying to make it back.
“It's kind of sunk in, but I want to see it with my own eyes”, Mr Bowman said.
In addition to the loss of homes and lives, people across multiple counties were struggling to stay in touch as flames burned through communications infrastructure. A hand painted blue sign affixed to a truck advertised “We Have Power Charge Your Phone Water Coffee”.
The sheriff of Sonoma County, in which Santa Rosa resides said officials have yet to search through the devastation.
Sheriff Robert Giordano said his office is starting to organise search teams, with the county already having posted reports of at least nine people having been killed by a raging wildfire. However, officialshave yet to inspect the affected areas because there are still hotspots.
Mr Giordano said the massive blaze is still very active in the Sonoma Valley and in the southern part of the county.
Santa Rosa Police said on Tuesday afternoon that a new blaze that started Monday night is quickly approaching Oakmont, a Santa Rosa neighbourhood.
California's two senators have called on the White House to speed up the availability of federal aid to California counties affected by the wildfires, as firefighters try to take advantage of cooler temperatures and decreased winds to get control of the flames.
Democratic Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein said they support California Governor Jerry Brown's request for a major disaster declaration and asked President Donald Trump to “expedite the damage assessment reviews necessary to make federal assistance available ... as soon as possible.”
The senators said damage is especially bad in the counties of Butte, Lake, Napa, Nevada, Mendocino, Sonoma and Yuba.
Mr Trump approved the request and the White House published the disaster declaration on Tuesday.