Hundreds of firefighters, law enforcement officials rush to California fires

Last Updated Oct 11, 2017 10:40 AM EDT

SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- Hundreds more firefighters and law enforcement officials headed Tuesday to Northern California to battle wildfires that have killed at least 15 people, including a 100-year-old man and his 98-year-old wife who were unable to escape their burning home.

"Armageddon... It's just gone -- everything's gone," Sonoma County resident Michael Everidge told CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

Jimmy Hendrix could barely recognize the street he lived on: "There's nothing but chimneys standing -- block after block, after block, after block -- nothing. All just down on the ground. It's just black -- the whole damn neighborhood is black."

Authorities hoped cooler weather and lighter winds would help crews get a handle on 17 separate fires, which are among the deadliest in California history.

"The weather has been working in our favor, but it doesn't mean it will stay that way," said Brad Alexander, a spokesman of the governor's Office of Emergency Services.

Multiple Wildfires Destroy Homes, Threaten California Wine Country

Burned-out cars sit next to a building on fire in in Santa Rosa, California, on October 9, 2017.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Vice President Mike Pence, who is visiting California, announced that President Trump approved a "major disaster declaration" for the state to assist in the response.

The California National Guard was tasked with bringing fuel to first responders battling the flames in Northern California because so many gas stations are without power.

Emergency operations director Mark Ghilarducci says several thousand people in Napa and Sonoma counties are still without power. Seventy-seven cellular sites were damaged or destroyed, also disrupting communication.

Major General David Baldwin of the California National Guard says 242 soldiers and airmen are assisting in responding to the fires in the two counties.

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Cal Fire/CBS News

The extra firefighters came from throughout California and Nevada. The extra law enforcement officers will help with evacuations and guard against looting, Alexander said.

At least 100 people have been injured, and as many as 2,000 homes and businesses destroyed, according to authorities, who warned that all those figures were expected to climb in the coming days as more information is reported.

Even as victims needed care, the fire was bearing down on Santa Rosa's two main hospitals.

"The hospital was filled with smoke, and it was at that time, that the police department came and said, 'drop everything go now,'" nurse Julayne Smithson told CBS News' Blackstone. She was among those who helped push patients from intensive care to ambulances.  As she was caring for others, her own home was on fire. 

She said, "Well, one of the nurses came to me and put her arm around me, and she said, 'I'm sorry, Jolene, but your home is gone.' I went to the window and everything at that point was engulfed."

The fires that started Sunday night moved so quickly that thousands of people were forced to flee with only a few minutes of warning, and some did not get out in time. Among the victims were Charles and Sara Rippey, who were married for 75 years and lived at the Silverado Resort in Napa.

"The only thing worse would have been if one survived without the other," their daughter, Ruby Gibney told Oakland television station KTVU.

CBS San Francisco reports the fires have consumed nearly 107,000 acres and turned whole neighborhoods into piles of ashes.

More than 400 miles away, flames imperiled parts of Southern California, too. Thousands of people were displaced by a wildfire that destroyed or damaged 24 structures, including homes. 

Hot, dry Santa Ana winds swept fire along brushy outskirts of Orange County suburbs and equestrian properties southeast of Los Angeles. More than a dozen schools were closed.

The blaze, which disrupted major commuter routes, spread over nearly a dozen square miles in less than 24 hours as a squadron of helicopters and airplanes bombarded it with water and retardant, and an army of firefighters grew to 1,100 by Tuesday morning.

Firefighters made progress against the Canyon Fire 2 in Anaheim Hills, but authorities say evacuations will remain in effect, CBS Los Angeles reports. They hope to lift those orders by Tuesday evening.

That blaze burned at least 7,500 acres and is 25 percent contained, Anaheim police Sgt. Daron Wyatt said.

CBS Los Angeles cites authorities as saying 14 structures were destroyed and 22 more were damaged by fire.

Residents' worst fears confirmed

In the hard-hit northern areas of the state, residents who gathered at emergency shelters and grocery stores said they were shocked by the speed and ferocity of the flames. They recalled all the possessions that were lost.

"All that good stuff, I'm never going to see it again," said Jeff Okrepkie, who fled his neighborhood in Santa Rosa knowing it was probably the last time he would see his home of the past five years standing.

His worst fears were confirmed Monday, when a friend sent him a photo of what was left: a smoldering heap of burnt metal and debris.

Some of the largest of the 14 blazes burning over a 200-mile region were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. They sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 60 miles away.

Pacific Gas & Electric says that 99,000 customers began Tuesday without power, the majority of them in Sonoma and Napa counties, CBS San Francisco writes. Water quality officials were also advising Santa Rosa residents to boil their drinking and cooking water as a safety precaution.

Sonoma County said received more than 100 missing-person reports as family and friends sought to locate loved ones. It's possible that many or most of the missing are safe but simply cannot be reached because of the widespread loss of cellphone service and other communications.

Meanwhile, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano says his office is organizing search teams in the are where at least nine people were killed. He says the team has yet to inspect the affected areas because there are still hotspots and the fire is very active.

Much of the damage was in Santa Rosa, a far larger and more developed city than usually finds itself at the mercy of a wildfire. The city is home to 175,000 residents, including both the wine-country wealthy and the working class.

The flames were unforgiving to both groups. Hundreds of homes of all sizes were leveled by flames so hot they melted the glass off of cars and turned aluminum wheels into liquid.

Former San Francisco Giants pitcher Noah Lowry, who now runs an outdoor sporting goods store in Santa Rosa, was forced to flee in minutes along with his wife, two daughters and a son just over 2 weeks old.

"I can't shake hearing people scream in terror as the flames barreled down on us," Lowry said.

His family and another evacuating with them tried to take U.S. 101 to evacuate but found it blocked by flames, and had to take country roads to get to the family friends who took them in.

A 90-mile stretch of the highway is framed by the flames and a major concern overnight, said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services.

Highway 12, which winds through the heart of wine country, was also rendered unusable by the flames.

"Sonoma and Napa counties have been hit very hard," Alexander said.

The flames forced authorities to focus primarily on getting people out safely, even if it meant abandoning structures to the fire.

Firefighters rushed to a state home for the severely disabled when flames reached one side of the center's sprawling campus in the historic Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen.

Crews got the more than 200 people from the threatened buildings, one firefighter said, as flames closed within a few dozen feet.

Fires from ruptured gas lines dotted the smoky landscapes of blackened Santa Rosa hillsides. Fire trucks raced by smoldering roadside landscaping in search of higher priorities.

The flames were fickle in some corners of the city. One hillside home remained unscathed while a dozen surrounding it were destroyed.

Kim Hoe, a 33-year-old tech worker from Penang, Malaysia, was staying at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, which was gutted by flames. He said the power went out around 1 a.m., and he and his colleagues started packing up when someone knocked on the door and told them to run.

"We just had to run and run. It was full of smoke. We could barely breathe," Hoe said.

Late Monday, flames began coming over a ridge in an area bordering Oakmont and Trione-Annadel State Park, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Summer Black told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Most of the Oakmont area was evacuated earlier in the day.

October has generally been the most destructive time of year for California wildfires. What was unusual Sunday, however, was to have so many fires take off at the same time.

Other than the windy conditions that helped drive them all, there was no known connection between the fires, and no cause has been released for any of them.