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Rudy Habibe, from Puerto Rico, and his service dog Maximus walk toward the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel, where he was a guest, in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Jeff Chiu/AP

Fires Are Engulfing California’s Wine Country. Here’s What You Need to Know.

20,000 people have been evacuated so far.
This story was originally published by Mother Jones.

Update, October 9, 5:00 p.m. PDT: Multiple outlets are reporting the death toll from the northern California fires has risen to 10—seven in Sonoma County, two in Napa County, and one in Mendocino County.

Where are the fires?

Fourteen wildfires in eight northern California counties ignited late Sunday and early Monday, destroying at least 1,500 structures. The worst of the fires—the Tubbs and Atlas Fires in Napa and Sonoma counties—have spread to at least 50,000 acres and haven’t yet been contained, forcing the evacuation of 20,000 people. (Thousands have been evacuated in Orange County’s Anaheim Hills as well, where a fire erupted this morning.) California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergencyMonday morning in Napa, Sonoma, and Yuba counties, and the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning—its highest fire alert—across northern California and parts of southern California. The fires follow many over the last couple of months, including the largest brush fire in Los Angeles’s history. UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told the Los Angeles Times that the fires are “definitely edging up there into one of the worst clusters of fires in California history.”

One Twitter user took a screenshot of NASA’s heat data overlayed on Google Earth, to illustrate the fires’ spread:

Who’s affected?

California has thousands of wildfires each year, but they’re often isolated to sparsely populated areas. Not this time.

The situation is most dire in the city of Santa Rosa, home to some 175,000 people 50 miles north of San Francisco. As the Tubbs Fire spread from nearby Calistoga toward Santa Rosa’s center, a large swath of the city’s northern and western ends—including two hospitals—were placed under a mandatory evacuation order (other parts of Sonoma and Napa counties have mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders as well). Just after 2 a.m., the fire leaped across six lanes of Highway 101 to Santa Rosa’s western half, reportedly destroying more parks and homes.

More than 100 people were treated for for injuries, including burns and smoke inhalation, though no deaths have been reported. (A fire further north in Mendocino County has resulted in two serious injuries and one fatality.)

Startling images of buildings engulfed in flames flooded social media this morning:

Is climate change causing these fires?

We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that fall is typically fire season in northern California, when hot temperatures and dry, fast winds make for a combustible combination.

We also know that climate change can cause more frequent extreme weather events, which in turn can exacerbate the conditions that give rise to wildfires. While California saw an epic amount of rain last winter that ended its years-long drought, the past several months have been hot and dry. Last month, a heat wave drove record high temperatures across the Bay Area—including the highest temperature ever recorded in San Francisco since its weather station was established in 1874.

How’s the rest of the Bay doing?

Bay Area residents as far south as San Jose—which is about 60 miles from the fires—awoke to falling ash and the smell of smoke this morning. Many called the police, forcing some police departments to request that residents don’t call 911 unless they see unattended flames.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory on Monday, warning that “the Bay Area is expected to exceed national health standards for particulate matter.” The EPA’s air quality map classified parts of the Bay as “moderate” to “unhealthy.”

How are the vineyards doing?

The Napa and Sonoma County fires could devastate California’s massive wine industry. Three and a half million people visited Napa Valley last year, largely drawn by the region’s wineries. Quartz reports that the grape harvest season lasts through late October or early November, and that replanting just one acre of vines in Napa Valley costs between $15,000 and $25,000.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported similar threats to the burgeoning marijuana industry, which has as many as 3,000 cannabis gardens in Sonoma County. The Chronicle reports that, according to some analysts, an acre of cannabis is worth about $1.7 million.

Joanna Nix

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