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Calif. Wildfires Force Residents To Evacuate In A Moment's Notice


In Northern California, the death toll continues to rise. This is where there are more than a dozen destructive wildfires that are burning out of control. Officials now say 17 people have died in these blazes. Many of them were trapped in the fast-moving flames in what has become one of the most destructive fire events in the history of California.

Firefighters are working to contain these fires, but their efforts are being hampered by very high winds. Meanwhile, thousands of people remain evacuated and away from their homes. As NPR's Nathan Rott reports, many are wondering if their homes are still standing.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: There's no shortage of supplies at the emergency evacuation center at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Volunteers are sorting and stacking heaps of donated items like water bottles outside of the shelter in a dull, muted light, a haze of smoke stinking the air. Inside, there's no shortage of questions. How did this happen? Is my home OK? When can I go back? Some, like Laura Gomez, have answers. She pulls up a photo on her phone.

LAURA GOMEZ: So this is our home.

ROTT: Oh, no.

GOMEZ: ...The 1 foot of ashes that is left of it.

ROTT: Others, like Carolyn Mitchell -

Do you know? Is your home OK?

CAROLYN MITCHELL: I have no idea. We're praying.

ROTT: Even Chris Coursey, the mayor here in Santa Rosa - the city that's been hit hardest by the fires - doesn't have all the answers. He's going shelter to shelter around town to talk to people that've been evacuated.

CHRIS COURSEY: I can't tell you if your house is burned down or still standing. I can't tell you when you're going to get to go home. I can't tell you how long you may end up in this shelter or another one.

ROTT: The situation in Sonoma County and Santa Rosa is still an emergent one. The north side of the city was overrun by fire, incinerating homes, businesses and entire hotels with a checkerboard randomness. More than 2,000 structures have been destroyed by the fires.

And while the flaming frontier has passed, the danger in the places that burnt hasn't. Power lines are still down. Trees are ready to collapse. The smoke is still hazardous. Emergency officials are telling people not to return home yet. But some are still seeking answers anyway.

JOHN WALDNER: Our place - my motorcycles just melted to the ground in there. And this place was beautiful.

ROTT: John Waldner is standing outside of the smoldering remains of his home at Journey's End Mobile Home Park, a place that now looks like a field of twisted metal.

WALDNER: Everything's gone - my TVs, our table over there. It's just - everything's just melted to the ground - all the beautiful palm trees. All that's left is all the tin stuff.

ROTT: There were 160 units on this property. About 125 of them now look like Waldner's. That includes the house at the entrance to the park occupied by the property managers. But Nancy Cooks still has her sense of humor. She carries a bin of soggy, sooty clothes from the wreckage of her home.

NANCY COOKS: I have a lot of laundry to do.

ROTT: (Laughter).

COOKS: That is the first time in my life I've ever been happy I could do laundry (laughter).

ROTT: Cooks and her husband say that they ran door to door with police officers the night the fire hit, telling people to evacuate not in a minute, but now. And to her knowledge, all did. They left their belongings, jumped into cars, speeding off into the night. And she says...

COOKS: And, you know, I think everybody's hopeful when they leave.

ROTT: ...That their homes and their belongings will survive. And some will. Some did. The two homes behind Cooks' are absolutely fine, unscathed by the same flames that destroyed her home and her belongings, save for that pile of clothes. I ask her why she thinks it went that way - why hers, not theirs. And she just shakes her head. She doesn't have an answer to give. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Santa Rosa, Calif.


Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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