New fire near Disneyland
Blazes on way to becoming worst in history of the state
SONOMA, California — Fueled by the return of strong winds, the wildfires tearing through California wine country exploded in size and number on Wednesday as authorities ordered new evacuations and the death toll climbed to 23, a figure that is expected to rise.
Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed at least 3,500 homes and businesses.
President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in the state, freeing up federal funding and resources to help fight the fires. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in eight counties.
“We are literally looking at explosive vegetation,” said Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “It is very dynamic. These fires are changing by the minute in many areas.”
The entire historic town of Calistoga, population 5,000, was evacuated. In neighboring Sonoma County, authorities issued an evacuation advisory for part of the town of Sonoma and the community of Boyes Hot Springs. By that time, the streets were lined with cars packed with people fleeing.
“That’s very bad,” resident Nick Hinman said when a deputy sheriff warned him that the driving winds could shift the wildfires toward the town of Sonoma proper, where 11,000 people live. “It’ll go up like a candle.”
Ash rained down on the Sonoma Valley, covering windshields, as winds began picking up toward the potentially disastrous forecast speed of 48 kilometers per hour. Cars of evacuees raced away from the flames while countless emergency vehicles sped toward them, sirens blaring. Residents manhandled canvas bags into cars jammed with possessions or filled their gas tanks.
The wildfires are on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in state history. And officials warned the worst was far from over.
“Make no mistake, this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event,” Pimlott said.
The fires have burned through 686 square kilometers of urban and rural areas. High winds and low humidity made conditions ideal for fire to ignite virtually anywhere on ground or brush.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said 22 wildfires were burning on Wednesday, up from 17 the day before. As the fires grow, officials voiced concern that separate fires would merge into larger infernos.
“We have had big fires in the past. This is one of the biggest, most serious, and it’s not over,” Brown said at a news conference on Wednesday, alongside the state’s top emergency officials.
They said 8,000 firefighters and other personnel were battling the blazes and more resources were pouring in from Arizona, Nevada, Washington and Oregon.
Flames have raced across the wine-growing region and the scenic coastal area of Mendocino farther north, leaving smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. Whole neighborhoods were leveled, leaving only brick chimneys and charred appliances to mark sites that were once family homes.
In Southern California, cooler weather and moist ocean air helped firefighters gain ground against a wildfire that has scorched nearly 36 sq km.
Orange County fire officials said the blaze was 60 percent contained and full containment was expected by Sunday, although another round of gusty winds and low humidity could arrive on Thursday.
An aerial view of a neighborhood that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California, on Wednesday.