SONOMA, Calif. (CBSNewYork/CBS SF/AP) — The California wildfires raced toward wineries and the historic town of Sonoma on Saturday, chasing hundreds more people from their homes and threatening to roll back firefighters’ modest gains against fires that stretched across a 100-mile swath of Northern California.
Propelled by stiff winds, the fires damaged or destroyed several buildings in the middle of the night before crews halted their advance at the edge of Sonoma, where firefighters spent days digging firebreaks to keep flames from reaching the city’s historic central plaza built centuries ago when the area was under Spanish rule.
Dean Vincent Bordigioni, winemaker and proprietor at the Annadel Estate Winery awoke at 3 a.m. with flames erupting on the ridge above his property.
“Things went to hell last night,” he said. “They’ve got a good fight going on.”
Nearly a week after the blazes began, the fires have left 40 people dead and destroyed at least 5,700 homes and businesses, making them the deadliest and most destructive group of wildfires in California history. Some 300 people remain unaccounted for, though officials think they’ll locate most of those people alive.
Most of the deceased are believed to have died late on Oct. 8 or early Oct. 9, when the fires exploded and took people by surprise in the dead of night. Most of the victims were elderly, though they ranged in age from 14 to 100.
“It’s a horror that no one could have imagined,” Gov. Jerry Brown said, after driving past hundreds of “totally destroyed” homes with Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.
On Saturday, an unknown number of additional structures burned down in a rural area, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox said the fire reached a sparsely populated part of Sonoma, a town of 11,000, and has burned some structures.
Sonoma County spokeswoman Maggie Fleming said early Saturday that residents needed “to get out now.” Meanwhile, Berlant said firefighters who had been taking a well-earned break from the fire lines had been sent into the battle.
“It’s an all-hands-on situation,” he told CBS San Francisco.
Judy Guttridge, who was evacuating for the second time this week, said her daughter saw flames advancing over the side of a hill around the same time Bordigioni did and told the family to get out.
“I have good insurance, everything,” she said. “All the kids, grandkids, great-grandkids are fine. I’m OK with that.”
One ridge separated the growing fire from the city of Sonoma on Saturday. An army of firefighters was waging a battle to halt the advance but the winds have created hot, ember-filled wind gusts.
The area had been under a red-flag warning since 5 p.m. local time Friday but forecasters said the strongest winds were expected between 4 a.m. to noon Saturday. In the Sonoma Valley, winds were steady at 20 mph with gusts measuring 30-40 mph and the humidity levels were less than 20 percent.
“The wind is changing,” said Sonoma County spokesman Scott Alonzo. “The wind is not our friend right now. Conditions are changing rapidly.”
Alonzo said there were some 10,000 emergency calls that were sent out early Saturday, county-wide.
The fires have caused an unprecedented amount of death and destruction in the state, with officials reporting 35 dead and 5,700 homes and businesses destroyed. Those numbers make this the deadliest and most destructive series of fires California has ever seen.
More than 9,000 firefighters are battling more than a dozen large fires across the state. Officials said Saturday overall they’re making progress.
“This is the day that we have prayed for since Sunday night,” said Napa County Supervisor Belia Ramos.
Two of the largest fires are now 50 percent contained, CBS News’ Chris Martinez reported.
At least 20 investigators are working to figure out what caused the fires, but say it could be weeks before they have any answers.
The fires are taking a massive financial toll on the region. Insurers estimate the damage could top $6 billion.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)