'Like an atom bomb hit': Santa Rosa residents confront devastation


SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Carlos and Daysi Torres lost everything.

The deadly wildfires that have devastated Northern California, killing at least 23 people, eviscerated their house in Coffey Park, a cozy tree-lined suburb that now looks like a ghostly wasteland.

"Everything was on the floor," said Carlos Torres, 42. "It was ash."

The flames incinerated the Torres family home, leaving behind little more than a rickety foundation. The simmering remains of the house were hot to the touch when Carlos returned earlier this week to sift through the wreckage. 

Across this city, longtime residents confronted a hellish landscape on Wednesday afternoon. All that remained in some lots were scorched washing machines, melted cars, and heaps of soot.

A gray pallor seemed to hang over every block. The air was thick with smoke, and some longtime residents wore dust masks as they approached a police checkpoint that kept much of the once-idyllic neighborhood off-limits.

Manuel Flores, 51, came back to see the gnarled ruins of his home. But he was turned away at that police checkpoint, he said.

"The policeman said, 'There's nothing to see,'" said Flores, a medical assistant who finished paying off his home in April. 

"I wish I could go now and start to construct something new," he said.

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Apocalyptic images of California's wildfires
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Apocalyptic images of California's wildfires
TOPSHOT - An inmate firefighter monitors flames as a house burns in the Napa wine region in California on October 9, 2017, as multiple wind-driven fires continue to whip through the region. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters assess the scene as a house burns in the Napa wine region of California on October 9, 2017, as multiple wind-driven fires continue to ravage the area burning structures and causing widespread evacuations. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Before & after. Signorello Vineyards in Napa #napafire #calfires #winecountry https://t.co/EMdn64nz3z
Flames overtake a structure as nearby homes burn in the Napa wine region in California on October 9, 2017, as multiple wind-driven fires continue to whip through the region. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A truck burns as fire ravages the Napa wine region in California on October 9, 2017, as multiple wind-driven fires continue to whip through the region. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Flames shoot out from a window as the Signorello Estate winery burns in the Napa wine region of California on October 9, 2017. More than a dozen fast-moving wildfires tearing through through California's wine country have killed at least 10 people, destroying hundreds of homes, authorities said on October 9. / AFP PHOTO / Josh Edelson (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
CALIFORNIA, USA - OCTOBER 10: A view of a San Francisco gulf as smoke covers the sun as a wildfire from the Santa Rosa and Napa Valley moves through the area in California, United States on October 10, 2017. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
CALIFORNIA, USA - OCTOBER 10: A view of a San Francisco gulf as smoke covers the sun as a wildfire from the Santa Rosa and Napa Valley moves through the area in California, United States on October 10, 2017. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
CALIFORNIA, USA - OCTOBER 10: A view of a San Francisco gulf as smoke covers the sun as a wildfire from the Santa Rosa and Napa Valley moves through the area in California, United States on October 10, 2017. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Stacy Henderson, 51, another resident whose home was nearly torched, said she knew 12 families whose houses and possessions were charred and mangled beyond recognition. Few have been able to return or know what comes next, she said.

"They're still in shock," she said.

Stacy's husband, Kevin Henderson, 60, said the area appeared to have been devastated, reduced to near-apocalyptic rubble.

"There's nothing there," he said. "It's like an atom bomb hit it."

Photos: From Above, California Wine Town an Ashy Wasteland 

Authorities grappled with containing the 22 firestorms raging simultaneously across the state's wine country, including Napa and Sonoma counties, where fierce winds and months of dry weather helped to kindle the flames.

Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said at least 115,000 acres had burned so far — about 2½ times the size of Washington, D.C. Firefighters from across California and Nevada were called in as reinforcements. 

Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said at a news conference: "The fires are still out there, and they are still actively growing."

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Satellite images of California's wildfires
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Satellite images of California's wildfires

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

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Carlos Torres, who has lived in Coffey Park for a decade, said he was grateful to be alive, but he felt frustrated that his family had not gotten an evacuation order or alerts from authorities.

His 17-year-old daughter, Ashley Carreno, said she heard people in the neighborhood honking their car horns, trying to wake people up early Monday. But no word came from officials, they said.

"They didn't say how bad it was going to be, that we'd need to evacuate," Carlos Torres said. "We saw cars leaving, but we didn't know why. ... Nobody told us what was happening."

Virtually everything the family-owned — furniture and appliances and baby photos — was burned to a crisp. One of the few items to survive was a record album whose cover art Carlos' daughter planned to use on the invitations to her upcoming quinceañera celebration. Torres said he saw the album's title, "Back Home Again," as a sign.

"I think of it as a message," he said. "We got to keep going."

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