Hun­dreds miss­ing in Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires

Wind con­di­tions ex­pected to worsen again

The Philippine Star - - WORLD -

SONOMA (Reuters) — Fire­fight­ers gained ground on Thurs­day against wild­fires that have killed at least 31 peo­ple in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia and left hun­dreds miss­ing in the chaos of mass evac­u­a­tions in the heart of the state’s wine coun­try.

The death toll, re­vised up­ward by eight on Thurs­day, marked the great­est loss of life from a sin­gle Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire event in recorded state his­tory, two more than the 29 peo­ple killed by the Grif­fith Park fire of 1933 in Los An­ge­les.

With 3,500 homes and busi­nesses in­cin­er­ated, the so­called North Bay fires also rank among the most de­struc­tive.

The flames have scorched more than 77,000 hectares, an area nearly the size of New York City, re­duc­ing whole neigh­bor­hoods in the city of Santa Rosa to ash and smol­der­ing ru­ins dot­ted with charred trees and burned-out cars.

The of­fi­cial cause of the dis­as­ter was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but of­fi­cials said power lines top­pled by gale-force winds on Sun­day night may have sparked the con­fla­gra­tion.

A resur­gence of ex­treme wind con­di­tions that had been fore­cast for Wed­nes­day night and early Thurs­day failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize, giv­ing fire crews a chance to start carv­ing con­tain­ment lines.

But fierce winds are ex­pected to re­turn as early as Fri­day night, and a force of 8,000 fire­fight­ers is rac­ing to re­in­force and ex­tend buf­fer lines across North­ern Cal­i­for­nia be­fore then.

De­spite progress, fire crews re­mained “a long way from be­ing out of the woods,” Ken Pim­lott, di­rec­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, told re­porters in Sacra­mento, the state cap­i­tal.

Mark Ghi­lar­ducci, state di­rec­tor of emer­gency ser­vices, added: “We are not even close to be­ing out of this emer­gency.”

Au­thor­i­ties have warned that the death toll from the spate of more than 20 fires rag­ing across eight coun­ties for a fourth day could climb higher, with more than 400 peo­ple in Sonoma County alone still listed as miss­ing.

One of the great­est im­me­di­ate threats was to the Napa Val­ley town of Cal­is­toga, whose 5,000-plus res­i­dents were or­dered from their homes on Wed­nes­day night as winds picked up and fire crept closer.

Cal­is­toga Mayor Chris Can­ning said any­one re­fus­ing to heed the manda­tory evac­u­a­tion would be left to fend for them­selves if fire ap­proached, warn­ing on Thurs­day: “You are on your own.”

Melissa Ro­driguez, her hus­band, baby and dog camped in the park­ing lot of a lo­cal col­lege af­ter smoke forced them to flee their Cal­is­toga apart­ment.

“We have high hopes it will still be there when we go back. ... It feels sad, help­less, there’s noth­ing we can do.”

The Tubbs fire on Thurs­day was within 3 kilo­me­ters of Cal­is­toga, which was spared on the first night of the fires.

Whether the town burns “is go­ing to de­pend on the wind,” Cal­is­toga Fire Chief Steve Camp­bell told Reuters. “High winds are pre­dicted, but we have not re­ceived them yet.”

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