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Firefighters Struggle To Contain Deadly Wildfires In Northern California


Firefighters are battling at least 15 separate wildfires across northern California. Ten people have been killed and tens of thousands have had to evacuate parts of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Sukey Lewis from member station KQED reports on the Atlas Peak fire in Napa.

SUKEY LEWIS, BYLINE: So I'm just standing in front of a house that is burning to the ground. It's right on the golf course here.

I drove through the active fire zone on Monday. The fire had erupted in the hills behind this wealthy enclave - hills thick with scrubby, live oak trees and combustible manzanita. It swept down into this residential area, whipped up by high winds up to 50 miles per hour. It caught many people by surprise, including local resident Linda Smernes, whose 87-year-old mother was forced to flee suddenly with several pets.

LINDA SMERNES: She saw the flames. She called me screaming hysterical.

LEWIS: Linda, who lives just down the road, couldn't get through the roadblocks to help her evacuate. But her mother did get out.

SMERNES: Yeah, she had her miniature horse in the back seat of her car and two dogs and one cat in one carrier and two cats in another carrier and a box with her three turtles in it.

LEWIS: Her mom's home was still intact when I drove past. But whole neighborhoods were smoking ruins. I spoke with California State Senator Bill Dodd, who lives in the area. He was eating dinner Sunday night when the power went out.

BILL DODD: And we just saw - yeah, we just saw the fire in the hills. And it was just, you know, utterly devastating. I've seen - yeah, there was a '65 fire that was - this is going to be compared to. I think this is worse. This has surpassed all of them.

LEWIS: I spoke to Dodd on the street in front of a multimillion-dollar home in flames. I saw luxury cars like Bentleys burned to their metal frames, an infinity pool cracked by the intense heat.

DODD: This community has been through major fires, floods, earthquakes. And we are very, very resilient. You know, we just have to look out for our neighbors that have lost everything and, you know, come together as a community.

LEWIS: And this community is only one of many devastated in the past 24 hours here in northern California. Cal Fire Chief David Shew told me firefighters are still fighting on many fronts trying to prevent loss of life.

DAVID SHEW: There's resources from all over the Bay Area and even coming up from Southern California also. We'll probably even be seeing resources from Oregon and Nevada coming in to help for a siege of this size across all of northern California.

LEWIS: Meanwhile, many residents are waiting to hear if their homes are still standing and if their loved ones made it out of the fire. I'm Sukey Lewis of KQED in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sukey Lewis
Sukey Lewis is a criminal justice reporter and host of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. In 2018, she co-founded the California Reporting Project, a coalition of newsrooms across the state focused on obtaining previously sealed internal affairs records from law enforcement. In addition to her reporting on police accountability, Lewis has investigated the bail bonds industry, California's wildfires and the high cost of prison phone calls. Lewis earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.