More than a dozen wildfires whipped by powerful winds been burning through California wine country. Picture: Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP

Santa Rosa, California - It looked like a blizzard of red embers had slammed into the suburban home of Bruce and Lisa Coats.

Bruce Coats recounted Monday how he used his garden hose to spray his home down in hopes of saving it. Then he went to his neighbors’ homes and tried the same thing. It was futile.

The combination of wind and fire was unstoppable. Coffey Park, a subdivision of hundreds of homes in Santa Rosa, an hour north of San Francisco, burned to the ground.

“It looks like a bomb went off,” said Lisa Coats, an accounts assistant at a retirement home.

“A nuke bomb,” said her husband, a soils expert.

Coffey Park was one of a number of neighbourhoods in Northern California’s wine country devastated by wildfires Monday. The flames were fuelled by intense winds and months of dry weather. At least 17 people were killed and up to 20 000 were forced to evacuate in one of the most destructive fire emergencies in this fire-prone state’s history.

Fires tore through the hills around Glen Ellen in Sonoma County. A Hilton hotel about a mile from Coffey Park was destroyed, as was a retirement trailer park called Journey’s End. These were among the more than 2 000 structures that authorities say were destroyed by the fires.

Evidence of the fire’s intensity was everywhere in Coffey Park, which residents described as an apocalyptic scene. The aluminum wheels on cars melted and dripped down driveways like tiny rivers of mercury before hardening. A pile of bottles melded together into a tangle so contorted it looked like a Picasso. Plastic garbage bins were reduced to mere stains on the pavement.

The destruction of the neighborhood was so complete that Lisa Layman, who has lived in Coffey Park for more than two decades and raised a son there, had trouble finding which patch of rubble was her house.

“We couldn’t even find the street,” she said. “I didn’t recognise anything. It all just looked like junk.”

Neighbours describe Coffey Park as a little slice of the American dream. And its makeup mirrors the ethnic diversity of the state, with a mix of Latinos, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Indians and whites living in a maze of neatly organised lots surrounding a park. Among the residents were bus drivers, insurance company clerks, retail managers and retirees.

“We had a good mix,” said Kevin Tran, a district manager at Verizon. “It was safe and everybody got along.”

Tran described the chaotic scene in the early hours of Monday morning when police cars came through the neighborhood with horns and sirens blaring — and loudspeakers barking orders for residents to leave.

“We had a half-hour to pack everything,” he said.

Late on Monday afternoon, Tran wore a headlamp as he rooted through the ashes of his home.

His mother, Lien Mai, held up her iPhone to show the devastation to friends over FaceTime. She began to cry.

“We are boat people,” she told a reporter. “We had to start over when we came here from Vietnam. Now we have to restart again.”

As dusk fell in Coffey Park on Monday, the remains of homes were still smoking. Pipes sticking up from the ground gurgled with water. Flames still flickered from disconnected gas lines at many houses.

Household items were so deformed it was sometimes difficult to know what they had been before.

Bruce Coats spotted his water heater and the tools in his garage workshop: the mangled remains of a drill press, a compressor, a belt sander and a tile saw.

His neighbour, Dayton Green, looked toward his home, where the charred outlines of a washer and dryer were among the most recognizable items. But he struggled to describe the vast expanse of destruction.

“It doesn’t look like anything,” Green said. “Everything was incinerated.”

Green and his wife did some urgent shopping Monday for their 1-year-old child: baby bottles.

What next? The residents of Coffey Park were not sure.

Mai, the Vietnamese woman who arrived in America as a refugee decades ago, now owns a restaurant in the nearby town of Cotati. She said she would seek solace in work.

“I’m going to open my restaurant tomorrow to keep myself busy,” Mai said. “And to keep my mind off this.”

Layman, who is recovering from cancer and whose doctor urged her to avoid stress, looked at the remains of her home with an incredulous stare.

“I don’t know what to think,” Layman said. “I don’t even know how to feel yet. I’m in such shock. It makes my stomach so sick. It just hurts.”

New York Times