N. California wildfires grow in number, size as officials order more evacuations
flare up again, destroying hundreds more homes and other buildings, as the death toll rises and is expected to go higher in the days ahead.
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Fueled by the return of strong winds, the wildfires burning through California wine country exploded in size and number Wednesday as authorities issued new evacuation orders and the death toll climbed to 21 — a figure that was expected to rise higher still.
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.
“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.”
Fires advanced Tuesday night toward populated areas in flame-battered Sonoma County, prompting officials to order a fresh round of mandatory evacuations — some of which were announced by deputies “running toward the fire, banging on doors, getting people out of their houses,” said Misti Harris, a Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.
“It’s rapidly changing, it’s moving quickly, it’s a very fluid situation,” she said. “The fire is growing.”
The entire historic town of Calistoga, population 5,000, was evacuated.
Nearly two dozen large fires have been burning in the northern part of the state; the worst, known as the Tubbs fire, has already killed at least 11 people since it erupted in Sonoma County on Sunday, making it California’s single deadliest wildfire in 14 years.
Officials expect the death toll to rise: Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said Wednesday that authorities have located more than 100 people who were reported missing — but that 560 still remain unaccounted for. Officers have not been able to reach most of the areas called “hot zones” that were immolated in the firestorm.
“When we start doing searches I expect that number to go up,” Giordano said.
It’s unclear if those who are missing have been harmed, or are simply unable to reach friends and families, as fires have disabled much of the communication system in the region. Officials are hoping to find majority of them Wednesday, Giordano said.
Ash snowed over the Sonoma Valley, covering windshields, as winds begin picking up toward the potentially disastrous forecast speed of 30 mph.
Cars of evacuees raced away from the flames while countless emergency vehicles raced toward them, sirens blaring.
The wildfires ranked as the third 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,” said Cal Fire’s Pimlott. The fires have burned through a staggering 265 square miles of urban and rural areas. High winds and low humidity made conditions ideal for fire to the start virtually anywhere on ground that was parched from years of drought.
“We’re not going to be out of the woods for a great many days to come,” Pimlott said.
Officials fear that strong winds forecast for Wednesday evening and Thursday morning would spread embers from the deadly Tubbs fire to populated areas of Santa Rosa and Calistoga that had been spared the flames.
Houses in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa were incinerated by the Tubbs fire, one of several wildfires that erupted in Northern California. Authorities expanded evacuation zones and 3,500 homes and businesses have burned.