SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — More than a dozen wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through California wine country Monday, destroying at least 1,500 homes and businesses and sending thousands fleeing as flames raged unchecked through high-end resorts, grocery stores and tree-lined neighborhoods.

As he fled through the ember-stewn streets of his neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Jeff Okrepkie knew it was probably the last time he would see his home of the past five years standing.

His worst fears were confirmed Monday morning, when a friend sent him a photo of what was left: a smoldering heap of burnt metal and debris.
“We live in the valley, where it’s concrete and strip malls and hotels and supermarkets,” Okrepkie said. “The last thing you think is a forest fire is going to come and wipe us out.”

At least one person died and two were seriously injured, state fire officials said, but they warned that those estimates were bound to climb.

The flames were burning “at explosive rates” because of 50 mph winds, said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
California’s fire chief says at least 1,500 homes and commercial buildings have been destroyed in wildfires ripping through Northern California. (Oct. 9)

Fourteen large fires were burning north of San Francisco, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties. It was unusual to have so many fires take off at the same time, fire officials said, though October has generally been the most destructive time of year for California wildfires.

The ferocity of the flames forced authorities to focus primarily on getting people out safely, even if it meant abandoning structures to the fire. The fire area covered more than 100 square miles (160 square kilometers) over eight counties.

Some of the largest blazes were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. Those fires sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) away.

Fires also burned in Yuba, Butte and Nevada counties — all north of the state capital.

The inferno blackened miles along one of the main gateways into wine country, State Highway 12 into Sonoma County. Wooden fence posts and guard rails burned fiercely. Thick smoke roiled from one winery, JR Cohn.

The fires also damaged the Silverado Resort in Napa and a Hilton hotel in Santa Rosa, the largest city in the fire area, with a population of about 175,000.