Fire crews are out in force, scrambling to fend off flames threatening neighbourhoods and vineyards in the northwest corner of the famed wine-growing valley
A wind-driven wildfire has erupted in the heart of northern California's Napa Valley wine country and spread across more than 404 hectares (1,000 acres), forcing the evacuation of several hundreds homes and a hospital.
Fire crews are out in force, scrambling to fend off flames threatening neighbourhoods and vineyards in the northwest corner of the famed wine-growing valley, about 120 km (75 miles) north of San Francisco.
The blaze, dubbed the Glass Fire, broke out before dawn near Calistoga and raced toward the adjacent towns of Deer Park and St. Helena, with flames advancing to within a mile of the Adventist Health St. Helena hospital.
All 55 patients who were at the hospital at the time were safely evacuated by ambulance and helicopter over the course of five hours, beginning around 7 a.m. in the morning, hospital spokeswoman Linda Williams told Reuters.
"We had ambulances lined up from all over the Bay area," she said, adding that while the facility was surrounded by smoke, the skies over the hospital itself remained clear enough for helicopters to land and take off with patients who needed to be evacuated by air.
It was the second wildfire-related evacuation of the 151-bed hospital since August, coming on the heels of a massive cluster of lightning-sparked blazes that swept several counties north of the San Francisco Bay region.
Some 600 homes were placed under evacuation orders, with residents of another 1,400 dwellings warned to be ready to flee at a moment's notice, according to California Depa rtment of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) spokesman Tyree Zander. About 5,000 people in all were affected by evacuation notices, he said.
By 1:30 p.m., flames stoked by winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour (80 kph) had scorched some 1,200 acres (485 hectares) of grassy rolling hillsides and oak woodlands, with zero percent containment, Zander said.
Fire at harvest time
The fire's cause was under investigation. There were no immediate reports of injuries, but a Reuters photographer in St. Helena saw a number of structures that had been burned.
The blaze erupted midway through the traditional grape-harvesting period in the Napa Valley, world renowned as one of California's premiere wine-producing regions.
The area's 475 wineries account for just 4% of the state's total annual grape harvest but half of the retail value of all California wines sold, according to the Napa Valley Vintners trade group.
Napa and other wine-growing regions have been plagued by a series of wildfires in and around the Bay area over the past several years. Susan Krausz, co-owner of Arkenstone Estate Vineyards in Angwin, said it would take days or weeks to assess the impact of the latest blaze on valley vintners.
"Most people have harvested," she said, adding, "Any time's a bad time for a fire."
Tom Kaljian, 78, a realtor who owns a house about halfway between Calistoga and St. Helena, defied evacuation orders to spend the day with his wife hosing down their home and dry brush along a fence line separating their property from the Silverado Trail, one of the area's main north-south roadways.
"We were told to get out of here, but I was trying to protect our little abode, so we stayed," he told Reuters by phone, adding that firefighters stopped by later to tell him his house was no longer in danger.
"I stopped watering at that point, and came in and took a nap," he said.
The Glass Fire came as the Pacific Gas and Electric Company announced it was temporarily shutting off power to transmission lines in portions of 16 counties across northern and central California as a precaution against heightened wildfire risks posed by hot, windy, dry conditions.
The public safety power shutoffs were expected to affect some 65,000 homes and businesses in the region, said PG&E, th e state's largest electric utility.
A red flag warning for extreme wildfire risks was to remain posted for Napa Valley through Monday morning, Zander said.
CalFire said a fire weather watch was due to go into effect on Monday across much of Southern California due to a forecast return of hot, gusty Santa Ana winds and low humidity from San Diego to Los Angeles and Ventura counties.