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17 wildfires still burning California; deaths hit 15

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Photographs by The New York Times/JOSH HANER

Little is left of homes in the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Tuesday after a wildfire raced through the area early Monday.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- Newly homeless residents of Northern California took stock of their shattered lives Tuesday while the blazes that have killed at least 15 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses kept burning.

Hundreds more firefighters joined the battle against the uncontained flames.

"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."

The wildfires already rank among the five deadliest in California history, and officials expected the death toll to increase as the scope of destruction becomes clear. At least 100 people were injured during the blazes that started Sunday night. Nearly 200 people were reported missing in Sonoma County alone.

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Photos by The Associated Press

Seventeen wildfires raged Tuesday across parts of seven counties. Fire crews and other resources were being rushed in from other parts of the state and Nevada.

More than 240 members of the California National Guard helped ferry fuel to first responders because so many gas stations were without power. Guard members were also helping with medical evacuations and security at evacuation centers, said Maj. Gen. David Baldwin.

In addition to knocking out electricity, the blazes damaged or destroyed 77 cellular sites, disrupting communication services that officials were rushing to restore, said Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci.

The fires that started Sunday night moved so quickly that thousands of people were forced to flee with only a few minutes of warning. Some did not get out in time.

[INTERACTIVE MAP: Active wildfires in the U.S.]

"It's literally like it exploded. These people ran out of their homes literally with minutes' notice, barely with the clothes on their back," Pimlott said, adding that authorities didn't have time to give more notice.

"They burned so quickly, there was not time to notify everybody."

Among the victims were 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his wife, Sara, who was 98. The couple were married for 75 years and lived at the Silverado Resort in Napa.

"The only thing worse would have been if one survived without the other," their granddaughter, Ruby Gibney, told Oakland television station KTVU.

A thick, smoky haze cloaked much of Napa and Sonoma counties, where neighborhoods hit by the fires were leveled. Authorities warned residents not to return to their houses for safety reasons, citing the risk of exposed electrical and gas lines and unstable structures and trees.

About 3,200 people were staying in 28 shelters across Napa and Sonoma counties.

"I don't know how long I'm going to be here, or what's happening at home," said Santa Rosa evacuee Kathy Ruiz, who had found her way to a center at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. "That's what I'm starting to think about now, am I going to have a home to go back to?"

But tourism officials said Tuesday that wine country is still open for business. Sara Brooks, chairman of the Visit Napa Valley Board of Directors and general manager of the historic Napa River Inn, said she has had some cancellations but expects tourism to bounce back as it did after the 2014 Napa earthquake.

"It's heartbreaking," she said. "It's tough to see these places you've seen your whole life on fire."

In the Santa Rosa neighborhood known as Coffey Park, Robyn Pellegrini let out a cry of grief as she approached the smoldering ruins of the duplex she had shared with her husband and their 6-year-old son. Daniel Pellegrini held his wife before they went searching for something they could salvage for their child.

With bare hands, they sifted through the remains of the exterior wall, which had collapsed into dust inside the house and covered all the other debris in their boy's room. They found a stuffed animal -- charred but still recognizable as a turtle. Robyn Pellegrini let out joyful gasps when they found pieces of his rock collection.

A young boy across the street, whose home was spared, brought over one of his own stuffed animals to share.

"You lose all your photos," said Tony Pellegrini, Daniel's father. "You feel like you lost a part of your life."

PENCE VISITS

Vice President Mike Pence said in a visit to California's emergency management headquarters that President Donald Trump has approved a "major disaster declaration" for California.

"It's heartbreaking to think that many of the fallen represent our most vulnerable; in some cases senior citizens who simply were not able to escape the flames that overcame their homes," he said. "They are in our prayers."

In Washington, Trump said he spoke with Gov. Jerry Brown to "let him know that the federal government will stand with the people of California. And we will be there for you in this time of terrible tragedy and need."

Brown was monitoring the situation but was not planning to visit the area Tuesday, a spokesman said, explaining that the governor did not want to interrupt firefighting efforts or "pull resources away for photo ops."

Officials hoped cooler weather and lighter winds would help crews get a handle on the fires.

"The weather has been working in our favor, but it doesn't mean it will stay that way," said Brad Alexander, a spokesman of the governor's Office of Emergency Services.

More than 400 miles away from the wine-making region, flames imperiled parts of Southern California, too. Thousands of people were displaced by a wildfire in Orange County that destroyed or damaged 36 structures, including homes.

The blaze spread over nearly a dozen square miles in less than 24 hours even as a squadron of helicopters and airplanes bombarded it with water and retardant. It disrupted commuter routes including part of the eastbound section of the Riverside Freeway, a major east-west freeway in Southern California, prompting one frustrated commuter, Jay Turner, to tell the Orange County Register: "It's Carmageddon out here."

The thick smoke from what's known as Canyon Fire 2 was visible from Disneyland and turned the sky a hazy orange. It also rained ash on neighborhoods near the Pacific Coast and prompted air quality warnings as far away as Los Angeles County.

Authorities said the fire had been 25 percent contained, and they hoped to let some residents return home soon.

Much of the damage 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 people, including wine-country wealthy and the working class.

It was unusual for so many fires to take off at the same time. Other than the windy conditions that helped drive them all, there was no known connection between the blazes, and authorities have not cited a cause for any of them.

The number of fires has intensified a discussion among policymakers about how the nation will protect people from fires going forward -- and how it will find the money to do so. Already, 2017 has been the most expensive fire season on record for the U.S. Forest Service, with fire-suppression costs exceeding $2 billion.

Trump has proposed a 21 percent cut to the budget of the Department of Agriculture, which includes the forest service, and a 12 percent cut to the Department of the Interior, which runs some firefighting services.

Information for this article was contributed by Jonathan J. Cooper, Ellen Knickmeyer, Jocelyn Gecker, Olga R. Rodriguez, Sudhin Thanawala, Juliet Williams, Eric Risberg, Janie Har and Kathleen Ronayne of The Associated Press; by Sonali Kohli and Paige St. John of the Los Angeles Times; by Thomas Fuller, Jonah Engel Bromwich and Julie Turkewitz of The New York Times; and by Eli Rosenberg of The Washington Post.

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Leslie Garnica, 17, searches the ashes of her family’s home for belongings Tuesday in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, Cal... + Enlarge

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Smoke rises over a burned home Tuesday in Sonoma County, Calif. + Enlarge

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Pepe Tamaya leads horses Sammy (left) and Loli to safety Tuesday in Napa, Calif. The horses were let out of their pasture Sun... + Enlarge

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Charred bottles of wine sit in their racks Tuesday at the Signorello Estate winery in Napa, Calif. + Enlarge

A Section on 10/11/2017

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