Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires set to worsen

Ex­treme weather con­di­tions likely to fuel fires as death toll hits 31, with hun­dreds miss­ing

The Straits Times - - WORLD -

SONOMA Fire­fight­ers faced another round of dry, windy con­di­tions yes­ter­day as they bat­tled wild­fires that have killed at least 31 peo­ple in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia and left hun­dreds miss­ing in the heart of wine coun­try.

The most lethal wild­fire event in Cal­i­for­nia’s his­tory has killed peo­ple while they sleep in their beds and prompted the au­thor­i­ties to evac­u­ate thou­sands of res­i­dents, warn­ing any­one de­cid­ing to wait it out: “You are on your own.”

The toll from the over 20 fires rag­ing across eight coun­ties could climb, with more than 400 peo­ple in Sonoma County alone still listed as miss­ing.

Winds of up to 100kmh and hu­mid­ity of just 10 per cent were ex­pected to cre­ate “crit­i­cal fire weather con­di­tions” and “con­trib­ute to ex­treme fire be­hav­iour” yes­ter­day and into to­day, the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice said.

A force of 8,000 fire­fight­ers is work­ing to re­in­force and ex­tend buf­fer lines across the re­gion where the flames have scorched more than 77,000ha, an area nearly the size of New York City.

With 3,500 homes and busi­nesses in­cin­er­ated, the so-called North Bay fires have re­duced whole neigh­bour­hoods in the city of Santa Rosa to smoul­der­ing ru­ins dot­ted with charred trees and burned-out cars.

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

The Napa Val­ley town of Cal­is­toga faces one of the big­gest threats and its 5,000-plus res­i­dents were or­dered from their homes 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.”

Sonoma County ac­counted for 17 of the North Bay fa­tal­i­ties, all from the Tubbs fire, which now ranks as Cal­i­for­nia’s dead­li­est sin­gle wild­fire since 2003.

Some peo­ple killed were asleep when flames en­gulfed their homes, fire of­fi­cials said. Oth­ers had only min­utes to es­cape as winds fanned fast-mov­ing blazes.

Mr Mark Ghi­lar­ducci, state di­rec­tor of emer­gency ser­vices, said the loss of cell tow­ers likely con­trib­uted to dif­fi­cul­ties in warn­ing res­i­dents.

As many as 900 miss­ing-per­son re­ports have been filed in Sonoma County and 437 have since turned up safe. It re­mains un­clear how many of the 463 still un­ac­counted for are fire vic­tims rather than evac- uees who failed to alert the au­thor­i­ties, Mr Ghi­lar­ducci said.

The fires struck the heart of the world-renowned wine-pro­duc­ing re­gion, wreak­ing havoc on its tourist in­dus­try and dam­ag­ing or de­stroy­ing at least 13 Napa Val­ley winer­ies.

PHOTO: NYTIMES

Fire­fight­ers in Sonoma County, Cal­i­for­nia, fac­ing a wall of smoke ris­ing from the Nor­rbom fire burn­ing across a val­ley on Wed­nes­day. The county ac­counted for 17 of the North Bay fa­tal­i­ties, all from the Tubbs fire, which now ranks as Cal­i­for­nia’s dead­li­est sin­gle wild­fire since 2003.

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