At least 23 dead, hundreds missing as winds fan California wildfires

Syndicated from Reuters: U.S.

 

SONOMA, Calif. (Reuters) – Firefighters facing a resurgence of high winds on Wednesday struggled to halt wildfires that have killed at least 23 people, destroyed 3,500 structures and left hundreds missing in chaotic evacuations across northern California’s wine country.

Flames erupted on Sunday night when gale force winds toppled power lines across the region, possibly igniting one of the deadliest wildfire outbreaks in California history.

The entire town of Calistoga, a Napa Valley community of some 5,000 residents spared from advancing flames the first night of the fire, was ordered to evacuate on Wednesday evening, as the county sheriff’s office warned that conditions had worsened as the so-called Tubbs Fire was burning nearby.

Flames were spread rapidly by hot, dry “Diablo” winds – similar to Southern California’s Santa Ana winds – that blew into northern California toward the Pacific on Sunday night.

The official cause of the fire has not been determined. But electric wires knocked down by those same winds may have sparked the conflagration, according to Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

Berlant said some of the victims in northern California were asleep when the fast-moving fires broke out, igniting their homes before they could escape.

At least 20,000 people remained under evacuation as the fires raged largely unchecked for a third day, belching palls of smoke that engulfed the region and drifted south over the San Francisco Bay area, where some residents donned face masks.

More than 550 people were still reported unaccounted for in Sonoma County on Wednesday morning, said Jennifer Laroque, a county emergency operations center spokeswoman.

It was unclear how many of the missing might be fire victims rather than evacuees who merely failed to check in with authorities. Officials urged displaced residents to let their family members know they were safe.

The Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa, the largest city in the wine country region, was particularly hard hit by the Tubbs fire. Blocks of some neighborhoods were nearly obliterated with nothing left but charred debris, broken walls, chimneys and the steel frames of burned-out cars.

“It’s like driving through a war zone,” J.J. Murphy, 22, one of the thousands of evacuees, said of the area around his home in the Sonoma Valley community of Glen Ellen.

In the town of Napa on the first night of a blaze dubbed the Atlas fire, nearly 50 people who were in danger of being overrun by flames were rescued by the crews of two California Highway Patrol helicopters.

The weather gave firefighters a bit of a respite on Tuesday as cooler temperatures, lower winds and coastal fog enabled them to make headway against the flames. Fire crews labored on Wednesday to strengthen containment lines as winds picked up again.

“We’re not out of the woods and we’re not going to be out of the woods for a great number of days to come,” Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told a news conference.

Matt Nauman, a spokesman for the region’s main utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, acknowledged that fallen power lines were widespread during the “historic wind event,” which he said packed some hurricane-strength gusts in excess of 75 miles per hour (120 km/h).

The latest overall death toll of 23, including six fatalities in Mendocino County and two more each in Napa and Yuba counties, marks the greatest loss of life from a California wildfire since 25 people perished in a firestorm that swept the Oakland Hills in October 1991.

Wildfires have damaged or demolished at least 13 Napa Valley wineries, a trade group for vintners there said on Tuesday. But experts say smoke rather than flames may pose a greater risk to the delicate grapes still waiting to be picked.

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in several northern counties, as well as in Orange County in Southern California, where a fire in Anaheim destroyed 15 structures and damaged 12.

 

 

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