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Valley Fire In Northern California Devours Homes, Forces Evacuations


In California, thousands of firefighters are trying to control three wildfires. The fires have claimed tens of thousands of acres of dry timber over the weekend. In a moment, the threat to giant Sequoia trees. We begin with the ferocious Valley fire just north of the vineyards of Napa.

It began on Saturday. Fire officials say it's speed has been overwhelming and that California's four-year-old drought is taking its toll. More than 400 homes are reported destroyed. Thousands of people have been evacuated. One person has died. Others are missing. NPR's Richard Gonzales is at an evacuation center where hundreds are anxiously awaiting word on whether their homes survived.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: At the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga, more than 600 evacuees woke up to a marine layer of overcast skies. The weather fit the mood here as people filed into old conference rooms for breakfast and a chance to recharge their cell phones, if not their spirits. Steven Jay Paul is a handyman who's grieving more than the loss of his cats.

STEVEN JAY PAUL: And then anger at the stupidity of myself just waiting to the last minute and then being trapped and losing everything.

GONZALES: He's sitting next to a laptop computer where people are studying maps of the fire, hoping to learn whether their home, block or neighborhood survived. This laptop has been a main attraction since Saturday when a relatively small fire aided by high winds and bone-dry timber exploded in every direction. It's the third major fire in Lake County since late July. Charles Russ helps manage a gated community in Lake County. He has been helping people understand what the maps say. Like them, he's an evacuee too. He says the fire came on so fast that his family had to retreat twice to what they thought was safe ground before leaving the county altogether.

CHARLES RUSS: And it moved so fast. It was a very, very quick moving fire. I mean, it was almost like a storm. I mean, we were getting gusts of 30, 40, 50 miles-per-hour winds coming right at us.

GONZALES: Fire officials call the Valley fire unprecedented in the way it moved so quickly. Here's Ken Pimlott, chief of Cal Fire.

KEN PIMLOTT: We've seen fires throughout Northern California grow at really exponential rates - in some cases, you know, thousands of acres in just an hour.

GONZALES: Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency here in Napa and Lake counties. He spoke today about the dozen or so other wildfires burning throughout the state. He says Californians can expect to see more of these fires in the future.


JERRY BROWN: We know from the science that the Southwest will warm, that the climate is changing, and it's going to exacerbate and intensify the occurrence of forest fires.

GONZALES: Later in the day, officials released more information about the first fatality. They say an elderly and disabled woman was unable to evacuate on her own on Saturday, and rescuers were unable to reach her burning subdivision. Her name is being withheld pending notification of her relatives. Back at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga, state and local officials are reassuring the evacuees that they will be served and sheltered for as long as necessary. But the guarantee of food and shelter and the outpouring of support from local residents goes only so far when one knows everything back home is gone. Steven Jay Paul and his friend Peter Braun try another way to ward off the longing for what they've lost.


STEVEN JAY PAUL AND PETER BRAUN: (Singing) But of all these friends and lovers, there is no one compares with you, and these memories lose their...

GONZALES: As they sing, people stop, listen and wipe tears from their eyes. One woman applauds silently and then walks away with her hands in her face.

PAUL: It's hard to sing and cry at the same time.

GONZALES: Richard Gonzales, NPR News at the Napa County Fairgrounds. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.