Burned Where They Stood: The First Nine Hours of the California Wildfires

The Historic Round Barn burns in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP)

A team of San Francisco Chronicle reporters reconstruct the first nine hours of the wildfires that levelled swathes of Northern California over the past two weeks. Talking to dozens of residents, first responders, and experts, they drive home the speed and scale of the disaster — and the impossibility of effective evacuation and firefighting when that happens.

Firefighters estimate that at times, the flames raced 230 feet per second and, inconceivably, threw embers a full mile ahead of the fire front. It moved so fast that chickens, cats and other animals were charred where they stood, left standing like blackened statues.

The fires awed Bill Stewart, a UC Berkeley forestry professor.

“These fires are off the charts,” he said. “There just aren’t enough firefighters in the West to fight that much fire. … Those trees, on fire, were pure ember machines that really kicked things into a new level. We’ll be studying this for years to come.”

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