Learning More About Victims of California Fires

SANTA ROSA, Calif. – UPDATE – 10/13/17
More than 30 people have died in the deadliest week of wildfires in California history. The victims include a couple who recently celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary, a woman born with a spinal defect who worked to help others despite her own troubles and a woman who died in her husband’s arms as they sought safety in a backyard swimming pool.

A look at some of those who were killed in the blazes:

`SHE WAS MY LIFE’

George Powell woke to a wall of fire already bearing down on his Santa Rosa home and immediately yelled to his 72-year-old wife, Lynne Anderson Powell: “Get out!”

Lynne Powell grabbed her border collie, Jemma, which always slept next to her, a laptop and asked for the best way to get off their mountain before jumping in her car.

George Powell left 15 minutes later after fetching his three dogs. George Powell now realizes when he raced down the mountain he drove past his wife’s car that had gone off the road and into a ravine in the heavy smoke.

After searching for her all night and the next day, a detective called to tell him a body burned beyond recognition was found steps from her car. Inside was a dog also burned to death.

“If I had known, I would have gone down there with her, even if it meant I would have died with her,” George Powell, 74, said. “I don’t know how I’m going to cope. She was my life.” He repeated: “She was my life.”

The couple had been married for 33 years. He was a photojournalist and she was a professional flutist, spending much of her career playing for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, which operated until 2011.

The two met while she was on vacation in Los Angeles, where George Powell freelanced for newspapers. He said it was “love at first sight” and he moved to New Mexico to be with her. After they retired, they settled in northern California so his wife could take care of her aging parents.

The two shared a love of border collies and entered in agility runs with their dogs. She was an avid quilter. The fire took everything, including her quilts and his life’s photo archive.

Lynne Powell did not want a memorial service or obituary. But George Powell said he may hold a special lunch with friends to celebrate her life.

“I don’t think I ever felt unloved or uncared for any second of my life with her,” he said.

TOGETHER IN LIFE AND DEATH

Charles Rippey, 100, and his wife, Sara, 98, are the oldest victims of the wine country wildfires identified so far.

Their bodies were found by one of their sons who had made his way past security and found the home in Napa where they had lived for 35 years completely gone. Only two blackened metal chairs, a porcelain tea set of white and soft washes of blue and other small remnants remained to testify to the couple’s long life together.

Charles Rippey – who was known by his nickname “Peach” since he was a toddler – appeared to be heading to the room of his wife, who had had a stroke in recent years.

Mike Rippey said his father would have never left his mother. The couple met in grade school and recently celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary with their five children.

“Those of us in the family always would, you know, wonder what would happen if one of them died and the other one was still left because we knew that, you know, there’s no way they would ever be happy whoever was the last one and so they went together,” Rippey, 71, said as he stood among the charred ruins of their home.

The couple attended the University of Wisconsin and married in 1942 before Charles Rippey served as a U.S. Army engineer in World War II. He then became an executive with the Firestone tire company.

DEDICATED TO HELPING OTHERS

Christina Hanson, 27, used a wheelchair and spent her life dedicated to helping others despite her own hardships, her family said.

Kelsi Mannhalter had posted on social media asking people to search for her cousin after the fire Monday ravaged Santa Rosa where Hanson lived.

Mannhalter later confirmed on Facebook that Hanson did not survive when the flames consumed her home.

“Just surreal,” Manhalter posted. “I love you so much and am going to miss you sweet cousin. I can’t say it enough.”

Her father was found collapsed on the street in front of his home with third-degree burns and was taken to a hospital in San Francisco. Hanson had tried unsuccessfully to reach him as flames surrounded her apartment around 1:30 a.m. Monday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Hanson was born with a spinal defect and lost her mother at 9 to lupus.

Still, her focus was always on others, her stepmother, Jennifer Watson, told the newspaper, describing her as “a very happy, social and positive person.”

Hanson volunteered two days a week at an Alzheimer’s residential care facility in Santa Rosa, where she would entertain residents.

She also taught herself sign language and interpreted for the hearing impaired.

“She loved helping people and loved her family,” said Watson, who was with her stepdaughter the day before she died.

Her family wrote in an online obituary that Hanson “was granted her angel wings.”

DIED IN HER HUSBAND’S ARMS

In the 55 years they were married, Carmen Caldentey Berriz had spent countless hours in her husband Armando’s arms.

In his arms was where the 75-year-old took her last breath on Monday, as he held her afloat in a swimming pool as walls of fire burned around them, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Carmen had known Armando was the one since she was 12, and the two dated for years before marrying in 1962. By the time Carmen turned 75, their family had grown to include two daughters, a son, their children’s spouses and seven grandchildren.

The Berrizes were three days into a vacation at a Santa Rosa rental house with family when son-in-law Luis Ocon woke early Monday morning and saw the fire begin to overtake the neighborhood.

They fled to their cars.

Luis, Monica Ocon, and their daughter made it through the thick smoke and flames and pulled over, watching for Carmen and Armando’s car to emerge behind them. It never came.

Armando Berriz’s car had gotten stuck on a fallen tree. He told his wife they had to run back to the house to take shelter in the backyard pool.

As flames melted the chaise lounges a few feet away, Carmen clung to Armando, who kept them both afloat by hanging onto the brick sides of the pool.

Armando Berriz held on for hours, even as the brick burned his hands, even as his wife stopped breathing. He let go only after the flames had burned out, laying Carmen on the steps of the pool with her arms carefully crossed over her chest.

He walked 2 miles to find firefighters.

“Everything they did was as a team,” daughter Monica Ocon said. “They had this bond and this strength that literally lasted a lifetime.”

ONE LAST PHONE CALL

Linda Tunis moved from Florida to the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa to be closer to her family. When the northern California wildfires quickly overtook the park, the 69-year-old woman phoned her daughter.

She was trapped, she told her daughter, Jessica Tunis. She was surrounded by fire, and going to die.

Jessica Tunis screamed at her mom to run to safety, to flee the burning home.

“I was telling her I love her when the phone died,” Jessica Tunis told the San Francisco Chronicle.

After three days of hope and dread, Jessica’s brother Robert Tunis found his mother’s remains in the debris where her house once stood.

Linda Tunis was spunky and sweet, Jessica Tunis said Wednesday. She was also fiercely independent, an attitude that wasn’t dampened by her health problems. She had failing memory because of a stroke, and had lost the sight in one of her eyes because of high blood pressure.

She loved bingo and the beach, choosing to move California mostly because it brought her nearer to her close-knit family, Jessica Tunis said.

“My mother’s remains have been found at her home at Journey’s End. May she rest in peace, my sweet Momma,” Jessica Tunis posted on Facebook earlier this week.

A VERY KIND COUPLE

LeRoy and Donna Halbur were married more than 50 years when they died in their Santa Rosa home. They were both 80.

Fox 40 anchor Paul Robins posted on his Facebook page that he spoke to LeRoy Halbur hours before the fire swept the neighborhood.

“He had stopped by the house as our family was gathered celebrating my mom’s birthday, bringing some of the last tomatoes from his garden,” he wrote in his post.

Robins said LeRoy Halbur was an adventurous traveler who had recently given up globetrotting to look after his ailing wife.

Halbur helped found the Sonoma County branch of the Catholic charity St. Vincent de Paul and was a member of its board.

Jack Tibbetts, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul district council of Sonoma County, told the San Francisco Chronicle Halbur had a great sense of humor and a smile that reflected his compassion.

AP-WF 10/13/2017 15:37

SANTA ROSA, Calif. – (CBS NEWS) Update: 10/13/17 – Recovery effort begins in Northern California after deadly wildfires scorch region

The devastating wildfires raging across California are now the deadliest in the state’s history. Thirty-one people are confirmed dead and 400 people are reported missing in Sonoma County alone, but officials believe some of those could be due to communication issues. At least 25,000 people have been evacuated from their homes.

Tom Fellbaum left his house Monday with just the clothes on his back. He and his wife Sue lived there for 28 years.

“It’s just stuff. The hard thing is the photo albums and the movies. That’s the hard thing,” Evans said.

In so many neighborhoods like the Fellbaums’, it’s an apocalyptic sight. A mail truck continued its deliveries to the mailboxes still standing along the blackened backdrop.

Officials are now moving on to the recovery phase, searching for victims within the rubble.

“Identification is going to be hard. So far in the recoveries, we have found bodies that were almost completely intact and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano.

Elsewhere, the fight to preserve what’s left is far from over as crews in Calistoga are battling not just the weather but the terrain. They’re working to stop the flames as they bear down on homes.

“They’re everywhere. There’s little pockets, there’s stuff that we just can’t get to. We just saved some houses down the street, and there’s no better feeling you know?” one firefighter said.

Jason Stevens has been living in a parking lot since his apartment burned down. All of his other possessions are now gone.

“Those things can be replaced. But there’s a lot of things that can’t that people have lost. I consider myself fortunate,” Stevens said. “It could have been so much worse.”

One of the interesting things about the fire is how it indiscriminately it burned. Homes on one side of a street have been burned to the ground, while the other side remains almost untouched.

(CBS NEWS) UPDATE 10/12/17  – Communication problems plague California as 22 large fires rage on.

The northwest line of the Santa Rosa wildfire in California is seen burning on Oct. 10, 2017, in a satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe.

At least 23 people have been killed in the wildfires ravaging California. It’s estimated that 3,500 homes and business have been destroyed so far as 8,000 firefighters work to control the 22 large fires that continue to burn across the state. There are still 285 missing persons reports filed, but officials believe many of those could be due to communication issues.

California Highway Patrol went door to door in parts of Sonoma County Wednesday night strongly advising people to leave their homes.

Some residents say a lack of communication is what prevented them from knowing the fire was coming closer, reports CBS News’ Mireya Villarreal from Santa Rosa, one of the hardest hit areas.

“It’s devastating. It literally looks like a bomb went off,” said Heather Bowers. When she saw ash raining down in her front yard Sunday night, she became the neighborhood emergency alert system.

“They were like, ‘what’s going on?’ I’m like, ‘you need to pack your stuff up and get out,'” Bowers said.

Bowers’ mother and two brothers lost their homes, her mother escaping with only the clothes she was wearing.

Many people in the danger zones were caught by surprise and needed help getting out.

“Communication problems in general have been difficult,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordono. He said alerts were sent out, but admits that not everyone would have received them.

“We still have systems that will call landlines for blocks of area and it will call all of those houses. But now, without landlines, if you do not sign your cellphone up, you don’t get that service,” Giordano said.

The fires knocked out 77 cell phone towers but now only 13 are down. In those cases, Giordano says, people should sign up for Nixel, a service used by emergency responders that can send alerts over Wi-Fi.

Asked if there is a backup system or a plan for one, Giordano said it was down to the news media: “We want people to listen to their radio, pay attention to their cell phone, get on the internet, go to the web pages. Use them all, so you don’t miss the pieces.”

CBS News spoke with a family whose aunt was missing since Sunday. A hotel employee watching our story five towns away recognized her and helped us reunite that family.

Nixel told “CBS This Morning” it has already delivered more than four million text and messages since the fires began.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. – Authorities are ordering all residents of the Northern California town of Calistoga to evacuate, saying “conditions have worsened.”The Napa County Sheriff’s Office says in an alert sent via cellphone and email that residents need to leave by 5 p.m. Wednesday.Earlier, officials went through the town of 5,000 people, knocking on doors to warn about 2,000 of them to leave.

Dangerous gusty winds and low moisture were forecast to reach the region Wednesday afternoon, fanning already raging wildfires.

In neighboring Sonoma County, authorities issued an evacuation advisory for the northern part of the town of Sonoma and the community of Boyes Hot Springs. By then, lines of cars were already fleeing the community.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (CBS NEWS) — UPDATE: 10/11/17 – California man after wildfires: “Like somebody dropped a bomb on our lives”

The death toll from California’s fast-moving wildfires continues to climb. Firefighters now say 17 people have died. Seventeen wildfires are burning across the state and have destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses. Much of the destruction is concentrated in the heart of California’s wine country – and the state’s governor has declared a state of emergency.

People across Northern California are now returning to where their homes used to be. For many of them, all that’s left are piles of wood and cement. A 100-year-old man and his 98-year-old wife died in Napa County when they couldn’t escape the oncoming flames. That couple had known each other since grade school, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

“It looks just like somebody dropped a bomb on our lives,” said Ruben Lopez.

Just one month ago, Lopez, his wife and three young children moved into their house. Now, it’s unrecognizable – blackened by the raging fire.

“You’re waking your kids up, trying to make it out as you can see a scary glow of light coming just right over the hill,” Lopez said.

The Lopez family is just one of hundreds who lost everything.

“We looked out and it was all engulfed in a matter of moments,” said nurse Julayne Smithson.

Smithson helped evacuate intensive care patients as she watched her own home nearby burn to the ground. She bought it just three weeks ago.

“I really didn’t think about my home at that point,” Smithson said. “Our goal was that patient, that’s my focus that was my assignment, I had to deliver and that was the focus.”

“It hit so fast, they just didn’t have a chance,” said Mike Rippey.

Rippey’s parents Charles and Sara were married for 75 years. The two died together when the fire reached their home.

“My mother had a stroke and she couldn’t move very well at all and my father certainly never would have left her,” Rippey said.

“My kids are safe, my wife, our dogs, my parents. There’s going to be a lot of work to rebuild. It’s going to take a community effort to really get this back to what it is,” Lopez said.

The Atlas Fire is just one of 17 fires burning in Northern California — and it’s just three percent contained.

Original story:

An onslaught of relentless wildfires across a wide swath of Northern California broke out almost simultaneously and then grew exponentially, swallowing up properties from wineries to trailer parks and tearing through both tiny rural towns and urban subdivisions.

At least 11 were dead, at least 100 injured and at least 1,500 homes and businesses destroyed, authorities said. All three figures are expected to surge in coming days as more information is reported. Many homes and businesses were evacuated — some just in the nick of time as flames approached.

Taken as a group, the fires are already among the deadliest in California history.

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 they had left behind.

“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.

Sonoma County said it has received more than 100 missing-person reports as family and friends scramble to locate loved ones.

The reports have come via calls to a hotline the county set up for the missing, according to Scott Alonso, communications director for Sonoma County.

It’s possible that many or most of the missing are safe but simply can’t be reached because of the widespread loss of cell service and other communications.

As of this early Monday evening, 99,000 PG&E customers were without power because of the wildfires in Northern California, a majority of those are in Napa and Sonoma counties, PG&E officials told CBS San Francisco.

In addition, PG&E crews had shut off gas service to about 26,000 customers as a precaution, because flames can damage a gas pipe or meter, the station said.

Workers in the renowned Northern California wine country picked through charred debris and plotted what to do with pricey grapes after wildfires swept through lush vineyards, destroying at least two wineries and damaging many others.

The wind-driven wildfires came as Napa and Sonoma counties were finishing highly anticipated harvests of wine grapes. Monday normally would have found workers picking and processing the ripe grapes to make chardonnay and other wines.

California Wildfires

Michael Pond, left, looks through ashes as his wife Kristine, center, gets a hug from Zack Thurston, their daughter’s boyfriend, while they search the remains of their home destroyed by a wildfire in Santa Rosa, California on October 9, 2017

 JEFF CHIU / AP

Instead, melted and blackened wine bottles decorated the ruined Signorello Estate winery in Napa Valley. People at Paradise Ridge Winery in Sonoma County posted photos of debris and haze, saying they were “heartbroken to share the news” that the winery had burned.

Much of the damage in Northern California 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 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 but found it blocked by flames, and had to take country roads to get to the family friends who took them in.

To the south, in Orange County, more than 5,000 homes were evacuated because of a rapidly spreading brush fire in the Anaheim area. The blaze had grown to nearly 10 square miles and had destroyed dozens of structures.

The blaze has scorched 6,000 acres and destroyed dozens of structures in Orange County.

Plumes of smoke were visible over Disneyland, and officials issued air quality warnings for parts of Los Angeles County.

An Anaheim police spokesman says there’s been no containment so far.

Among those fleeing the flames in Northern California were what the San Francisco Chronicle calls “a who’s who of athletes — Olympians, Hall of Famers.”

The newspaper says they’d attended retired football star Ronnie Lott’s celebrity fundraiser at Mayacama Golf Club in Santa Rosa.

“Former Giants outfielder Barry Bonds wound up shuttling guests who did not have rides away from Mayacama when the villas at the course were evacuated,” the Chronicle reports. “Longtime Kansas City pitcher Bret Saberhagen left his golf clubs in the parking lot in order to fit Olympic speedskater Dan Jansen and his wife into his rental car. And onetime Dodgers closer Eric Gagne raised the alarm at a second hotel to which the celebrities were sent, pounding on doors to make sure occupants were out.”

A 90-mile stretch of the highway is framed by the flames and has been 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 ferocity of 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.

US-WILDFIRES-CALIFORNIA

Louis Reavis views the burned remains of his classic Corvette at his home in Napa, California on October 9, 2017, after a wildfire swept through the area.

 JOSH EDELSON / AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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.

The large majority of the injured were treated for smoke inhalation, according to St. Joseph Health, which operates hospitals in the Santa Rosa area. Two were in critical condition and one was in serious condition. The number of injured is expected to climb as information comes in for all the other areas affected by the firestorm consuming the state.

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.

But the conditions late Monday and early Tuesday were calmer than they were 24 hours earlier, bringing hopes of progress against the flames.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the fire areas, and asked the federal government to do the same. Vice President Mike Pence, who is visiting California, said at an event near Sacramento that the federal government stands with California as it takes on the blazes, but he made no specific promises.

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