Cal­i­for­nia fires grow; deaths rise

N. Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires grow in num­ber, size as of­fi­cials or­der more evac­u­a­tions

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - Front Page - By Ellen Knick­meyer and Jo­ce­lyn Gecker

More wild­fires ig­nited across thou­sands more acres in Cal­i­for­nia, rais­ing the death toll to 21, with hun­dreds miss­ing. Firefighters so far have been un­able to stop the spread, forc­ing thou­sands more res­i­dents to flee. Of­fi­cials feared some of the fires will com­bine to form sev­eral gi­ant in­fer­nos rac­ing across tin­derdry land.

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 the 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.

“We are fac­ing some pretty sig­nif­i­cant mon­sters,” Cal Fire in­ci­dent com­man­der Bret Gou­vea told a room of about 200 firefighters and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials at the Sonoma County Fair­grounds stag­ing area Wednesday morn­ing.

Ex­hausted and sore firefighters fanned across scorched moun­tain­sides at­tack­ing hot spots, chop­ping shrubs and us­ing shov­els and axes to clear smooth paths down to bare soil roughly 4-feet wide.

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Ber­lant said 22 wild­fires were burn­ing Wednesday, up from 17 the day be­fore. As the fires grow, of­fi­cials voiced con­cern that sep­a­rate fires would merge into even larger in­fer­nos.

“We have had big fires in the past. This is one of the big­gest, most se­ri­ous, and it’s not over,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a news con­fer­ence, along­side the state’s top emer­gency of­fi­cials. They said 8,000 firefighters and other per­son­nel were bat­tling the blazes.

In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, cooler weather and moist ocean air helped firefighters gain ground against a wild­fire that has scorched more than a dozen square miles.

Or­ange County Fire Author­ity Capt. Steve Con­cialdi said the blaze was nearly half­way sur­rounded and full con­tain­ment was ex­pected by Saturday, but an­other round of gusty winds and low hu­mid­ity lev­els could ar­rive late Thursday.

MAR­CUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES

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.

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