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California Wildfires Send Residents Running

VOA - Wednesday 11th October, 2017

SAN RAFAEL, CALIFORNIA - Throughout the San Francisco Bay Area smoke lay heavy on Tuesday, a visual reminder of the fast-moving wildfires stretching over nine counties in northern California.

In Northern California's wine country and surrounding areas, firefighters fought as many as 15 fires and thousands of people were displaced from their homes. Beautiful wineries, many with their vineyards ready for the fall harvest, were incinerated. Whole neighborhoods were destroyed, many with only their brick chimneys left to mark where the homes had been.

Authorities reported that 15 people had died and more than 100 were missing as fires caught people by surprise starting early Monday morning, helped by crackling dry conditions and gusty winds. President Donald Trump approved federal disaster funding for California.

This aerial image shows a neighborhood that was destroyed by a wildfire in Santa Rosa, California, Oct. 10, 2017.

'It's devastating'

On the second day of the wildfires, there was a respite from the wind. By Wednesday night, gusty winds were expected to return, likely making the job of fighting the fires more difficult.

Kristopher Jay Banzon, a transmission lineman for Pacific Gas and Electric, said he had been awake for more than 24 hours working to return power to the region.

"It's devastating," said Banzon, who is Filipino-Canadian, working in the U.S. on a TN visa, a NAFTA-created program. "It's a lot of damage."

Thousands of residents fled to the more than 10 evacuation centers. At the Marin County Civic Center, children played in a shelter, which held about 350 people Tuesday afternoon. The center also sheltered 23 dogs, nine cats, a couple of bunnies and a couple of birds, according to Matt Willis, public health officer for Marin County.

The remains of burned bottles of wine are seen on a rack at the Signorello Estate winery, Oct. 10, 2017, in Napa, California.

Shelter ready for more people

With reports of the fire spreading to new regions, Willis said the shelter was ready to accept more people that evening.

"We are watching like everyone else to see what unfolds," he said.

Erick Muj, a landscaper who lives in Santa Rosa, brought his three children to the Marin shelter 64 kilometers (40 miles) away from his home.

At 3 a.m. Monday, his neighbor knocked on his door yelling "Fire." Muj grabbed his family and ran out. While his home is believed to be safe, he has heard that his clients have lost their homes.

"I'm pretty sorry for them," said Muj, who is from Guatemala. "Even though I lost part of my job, I'm worried about them. They lost everything they had."

A tree catches fire near houses in the Oakmont area of Santa Rosa, California, Oct. 10, 2017.

Looking for fresh air

Early Monday morning, Bob Coughenour, an evacuee, also left his home in Kenwood, Sonoma County. He stayed with friends but was looking Tuesday for a place to hang out during the day to get out of the smoke a library, the mall, an evacuation center, anywhere. He was carrying a mask for his wife, who was having trouble breathing as the smoke followed them. He picked up a few snacks at the Marin shelter.

"The fires are still not under control, they are all around where we live," he said. "They are not letting people back into our neighborhood. It's not good."

A neighbor did manage to sneak back into the neighborhood despite a curfew imposed by authorities.

"He was evading the police," he said. "We're glad he did. He saw our house and said everything is OK."

VOA';s Michelle Quinn talks to evacuees of California wildfires

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