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Wildfires rip through California wine country, thousands flee

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Santa Rosa (United States) (AFP)

Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes in California's Napa Valley on Monday as wildfires fanned by fierce winds ripped through the region's world-famous wine country.

Under an opaque orange sky and a sweltering new heatwave, vineyards were consumed and houses devastated by the blaze that erupted at a "dangerous rate of spread" through 11,000 acres (4,500 hectares) by Monday, Cal Fire said.

Celebrated Napa wineries have already gone up in smoke, such as Chateau Boswell and part of Castello di Amorosa, while other vineyards like Merus Wines and Davis Estates were under imminent threat from the fast-moving flames, according to local reports.

"We saved the winery last night, but everything else was lost," Tuck Beckstoffer, president of a 20-acre vineyard near St Helena, told Wine Spectator magazine on Monday.

Calistoga, a picturesque community at the top of the Napa Valley known for hot springs and as a launchpad for wine tours, has largely been evacuated.

CeeBee Thompson spent sleepless hours watching flames in the distance and packing her car, as the nearby town's recently installed warning sirens sounded twice during the night.

"We could see flames shooting up all night long," Thompson told AFP.

"The only thing we have left to do is put the cats in the car, and that will be an interesting challenge."

The inferno is threatening communities in Napa and neighboring Sonoma still reeling from devastating wildfires in 2017, when 44 people died and thousands of buildings were razed.

"It's like a double whammy," Thompson said of the repeat destruction.

By early Monday, strong winds gusting up to 55 mph were blowing embers and spreading blazes including the Glass Fire and Shady Fire, which have merged as more than 1,000 firefighters battle to bring the flames under control.

Houses on the edges of Sonoma County's most populous town, Santa Rosa -- home to 177,000 residents -- had begun to burn, while Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) cut electricity to 65,000 homes in northern California as a precaution.

- 'You lose everything' -

Firefighters were deploying 133 engines, 22 water tenders, five helicopters and 35 bulldozers, the Napa Valley Register said.

Susie Fielder fled her St Helena home at 3:30am, grabbing a photo of her grandparents off the wall and a small, pre-stocked bag of essentials after a warning alarm sounded in her neighborhood.

"This morning I was thinking what do you do if you lose everything?" Fielder told AFP.

Returning from a refuge in the city of Napa shortly before noon, her home was ash-coated and without electricity but unscathed.

Nearby flame-ravaged Spring Mountain was barely visible through the smoke as Fielder got to work cleaning and moving perishable food into a freezer powered by a generator.

She doesn't plan to unpack her "go bag" of essentials until at least November, provided rain arrives.

"I'm going to stay until somebody comes and knocks on my door and tells me I have to leave," Fielder said.

- 'All hell breaks loose' -

California has been battling massive wildfires for months, stoked by dry conditions, strong seasonal winds and high temperatures that the state's leadership has blamed on climate change.

Parts of the state have been engulfed at times in thick smoke, while evacuations have been complicated by the coronavirus which has hit California hard.

Five of California's six most destructive wildfires in history have begun since last month and are still burning, according to state fire agency Cal Fire.

High winds and temperatures that picked up over the weekend have intensified those, including the huge North Complex Fire in northeastern California where new evacuations were ordered Sunday near the small town of Paradise.

Paradise was ravaged by the deadliest fire in the state's modern history -- the Camp Fire, which in November 2018 killed 86 people and destroyed some 18,000 buildings.

Kale Casey, a spokesman for firefighter efforts at the historic 880,000-acre August Complex fire, said light winds had already been "pulling" flames away from contained areas before the dramatic events of the past 24 hours.

"And then you have a day like yesterday where all hell breaks loose," he told a virtual press conference.

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