SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) — Jose Garnica worked for more than two decades to build his dream home only to see it reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes by the deadly firestorm that is blackening California wine country.
Garnica, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico over 20 years ago, had finally decided he could afford to upgrade parts of his Santa Rosa house after building a stable career with the local garbage company and saving nearly everything he and his wife earned.
Over the past two years, he replaced the siding and installed a new air conditioner, stainless steel appliances and new flooring. Less than a week ago, the 44-year-old got an estimate to replace the fence, one of the last items on his list.
But several hours before dawn Monday, he watched his house become one of the more than 2,000 homes and businesses destroyed by the series of blazes across the region that had killed at least 17 people.
“You feel helpless,” he said Tuesday. “There’s nothing you can do. Everything, your whole life, goes through your mind in a minute. Everything you had done. I left all my family behind in Mexico to get a better life. Finally we were just coming to the comfort level, and this happens.”
Flames have raced across Napa and Sonoma counties and the coastal beauty of Mendocino further north, leaving little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. Whole neighborhoods are gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark sites that were once family homes.
On Wednesday, authorities ordered more evacuations for parts of Sonoma Valley after a blaze there grew to 44 square miles (113 square kilometers). Officials also cautioned that after a day of cooler weather and calmer winds, dangerous gusts will return to the region Wednesday.
“This is just pure devastation, and it’s going to take us a while to get out and comb through all of this,” said Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He said the state had “several days of fire weather conditions to come.”
In some torched neighborhoods, fire hydrants still had hoses attached, apparently abandoned by firefighters who had to flee.
The wildfires already rank among the deadliest in California history, and officials expected the death toll to increase as the scope of destruction becomes clear. At least 185 people were injured during the blazes that cropped up Sunday night. Nearly 200 people were reported missing in Sonoma County alone.
David Leal, 55, and his wife and stepson salvaged a few decorative items from their Santa Rosa home, including a wind chime, tiles from the backsplash in the kitchen, a decorative sun and a cross.
“Our plan is to keep those things, and when we rebuild, they’ll be mementos of what we’ve lived through, and of, just, resilience,” Leal said. “It’s hard not to get emotional.
In the meantime, Leal got a post office box so the family can get mail, a new laptop and some clothes. They’re living out of their two vehicles for now.
“We’ll be back home again sooner than later, and with our chins held high,” he said, choking back tears. “And hopefully we’ll be amongst our neighbors and friends as they do the same.”
Leal, a Navy veteran, evacuated with his family, two dogs and a cat to nearby Petaluma late Sunday after seeing fierce, hot winds and flames whipping in the distance.
“We didn’t have time to think about what to grab. We grabbed what we saw,” he said. He got his external hard drive, which was lying out, but left his laptop.
Garnica also hung onto hope, saying he was not back at square one.
“I came into the States with nothing. I didn’t have anything,” Garnica said. “I think I’m better off than how I came in. At least I got a job. I got a family. I’m healthy.”
In Southern California, the return of cooler weather and moist ocean air helped firefighters gain ground against a wildfire that has scorched more than a dozen square miles. Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi said the blaze was 45 percent surrounded and full containment was expected by Saturday, but another round of gusty winds and low humidity levels could arrive late Thursday.
Knickmeyer reported from Sonoma, California. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Olga R. Rodriguez, Sudhin Thanawala, Juliet Williams and Andrew Dalton in San Francisco and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento contributed to this report.