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California expands evacuations as wildfire rages through northern wine country

A wind-driven wildfire raged for a second day through northern California wine country on Monday, burning homes, forcing thousands of residents to flee and threatening some of the world-renowned vineyards of Napa and Sonoma counties, officials said.

As of Monday morning, a blaze dubbed the Glass Fire had spread across 4,450 hectares of rolling grassy hillsides and oak woodlands, fanned by high winds and fuelled largely by thick, dry scrub left unburned by previous wildfires.

The fire erupted before dawn on Sunday near Calistoga, in the heart of the Napa Valley wine-growing region about 120 km north of San Francisco, and had spread by afternoon across 2,000 acres. By Monday, the blaze had merged with two other fires into a larger conflagration straddling western Napa County and an adjacent swath of Sonoma County.

Read more: California wildfires force evacuation of hundreds of homes, hospital in wine country

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In one notable property loss, the castle-like Chateau Boswell winery in St. Helena, a familiar landmark along the Silverado Trail road running the length of the Napa Valley, went up in flames on Sunday night.

An estimated 48,500 Sonoma County residents, including some in parts of the city of Santa Rosa, have been ordered or urged to evacuate so far, emergency management director Christopher Godley said at a news briefing.

Some 5,000 Napa County residents were under evacuation orders or advisories on Sunday, including parts of St. Helena, Deer Park and Angwin, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) reported.

No injuries have been reported in the Glass Fire, the cause of which was under investigation.

California wildfires: New wind-fuelled blaze forces hospital evacuation, threatens vineyards

In 2017, roughly 5 per cent of Santa Rosa’s homes were lost when downed power lines sparked a devastating firestorm in October that swept the region, killing 19 people.

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Santa Rosa Fire Chief Anthony Gossner said the latest blaze was burning mostly through overgrown scrub in areas have seen little or no wildfire activity in a century.

Not everyone heeded evacuation orders.

As parts of Santa Rosa emptied out around him, Jas Sihota perched himself on his front porch with a garden hose, darting out every 15 minutes or so to douse nearby spot fires seeded by wind-blown embers under a hazy red sun.

Read more: ‘Stubborn’ California wildfire fueled by lack of firefighting resources: officials

Sihota, a radiology technician at a nearby hospital, said he had not slept in some 24 hours.

“I wouldn’t have a house if I didn’t stay,” said Sihota. At least 10 homes elsewhere on the street beyond the reach of his hose were destroyed.

The Glass Fire marked the latest flashpoint in a historically destructive wildfire season throughout the Western United States.

In California alone, wildfires far have scorched 3.7 million acres since January – far exceeding any single year in state history. They have been stoked by intense, prolonged bouts of heat, high winds and other weather extremes that scientists point to as signs of climate change. Since mid-August, fires in the state have killed 26 people and destroyed over 7,000 structures.

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Harvest-season flames

The Glass Fire struck during grape harvest in Napa Valley, whose 475 wineries account for just 4 per cent of the state’s annual grape harvest but half the total retail value of all California wines sold. Sonoma County, too, has become a premiere wine region.

The immediate impact on the region’s vintners remained to be seen. But the fires were causing major disruptions to some of the area’s most vulnerable residents in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 151-bed Adventist Health St. Helena hospital was forced to evacuate patients on Sunday, the second time in a month following a lightning-sparked wildfire in August.

Read more: Desert homes near Los Angeles threatened by massive California wildfire

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On Monday, residents at Oakmont Gardens, a Santa Rosa retirement community, leaned on walkers and waited to board a bus taking them to safety, their face masks doubling as protection against smoke and COVID-19.

About 37,000 homes and business have sustained power disruptions across the region, some from precautionary shutoffs of transmission lines to reduce wildfire risks in the midst of extremely windy, hot, dry weather, Pacific Gas and Electric Company reported.

CalFire said 1,000-plus firefighters were battling the Glass Fire, with at least 18,000 on the front lines of more than two dozen major blazes across the state.

Red flag warnings for extreme wildfire risks remained posted for much of northern California, forecasting low humidity and gale-force wind gusts.

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