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California vintner takes refuge in winery after flames engulf home

SONOMA, Calif., Oct 11 (Reuters) - Vintner Mike Sullivan is hard at work processing a new harvest despite fires raging in the northern California wine country around him. He abandoned his own house early this week, and he has no home to return to, even if he had the time.

Awoken by the smell of smoke at 1 a.m. on Monday, the co-owner of Benovia Winery was stunned by what he saw speeding up the ridge beyond his driveway.

"There was what seemed like a wall of flames coming at us," recounted Sullivan. "It may have been a mile away but it was so furious it sounded like a jet engine coming at us."

Sullivan is one of the thousands of people displaced by the 22 blazes ravaging the state, most in the epicenter of the Northern California wine industry. The fast-moving wildfires have killed at least 17 people and destroyed 3,500 homes and businesses.

Like many in this arcadian part of the state, a patchwork of hills and valleys covered by vineyards, forests, and tall grasses, Sullivan works in the wine industry. At Benovia, a Russian River Valley winery northwest of Santa Rosa, four staff members are now homeless from the fire.

Sullivan's escape happened in a flash. After waking his two kids, there followed a mad scramble in the dark for flashlights and cellphones, photographs and mementoes.

"We were out of there in less than five minutes," recalled Sullivan, who grabbed the dog just before exiting.

The fires displaced the entire Sullivan family, native to the area. Sullivan's parents were evacuated from their home to the east closer to Sonoma, where flames came almost to their doorstep. Also fleeing their homes were Sullivan's two brothers.

Sullivan found a home for his children and headed to his winery, which is out of the fire's path. He remains there, draining and pressing tanks where grapes have been fermenting.

"The hard part is not knowing," recalled Sullivan, referring to fires still raging out of control in Napa and Sonoma. Dry, windy conditions were forecast to return on Wednesday. "The full scope of this, they still haven't determined," he said.

Sullivan knows he is not alone. Others have lost their homes, including thousands in the foothills north of Santa Rosa. Some wineries, the lifeblood of the area, are in ashes. After the fire swept through the area, Sullivan went back to his home to see what he could salvage.

"Not a thing."

(Reporting By Alexandria Sage; Editing by Peter Henderson and Richard Chang)