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23 Dead as Winds Continue to Fuel 'Serious, Critical, Catastrophic' California Wildfires
The wildfires burning through California wine country exploded Wednesday, fueled by the return of strong winds, as authorities issued new evacuation orders and the death toll rose to 23 - a number officials believe is bound to grow.
"Make no mistake, this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event," said Ken Pimlott, chief of the department.
The series of fires is already among the worst in California history, and Pimlott says the situation is "going to continue to get worse before it gets better."
Firefighters will be struggling with windy conditions through the weekend, said weather.com meteorologist Linda Lam, and could see gusts up to 45 mph over the next several days.
Crews have made little headway on a series of 22 fires that have turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed at least 3,500 homes and businesses. The blazes have left at least 180 people injured, while more than 4,400 people were staying in shelters Wednesday.
In Sonoma County, authorities are strongly encouraging residents to evacuate from the north side of Sonoma and in most of Boyes Hot Springs.
Sheriff Robert Giordano told the AP that across the county hundreds of people are still reported missing, but that investigators are starting at shelters looking for evacuees and working their way backward to people's homes to see if they got out alive. There is a widespread loss of cell service and other communications in the county, the AP also reported, so it's possible that many of the "missing" people are simply cut off from communications.
On Wednesday, authorities ordered all residents of Calistoga, a historic small town in Northern California known for its wineries, to evacuate, saying "conditions have worsened."
The Napa County Sheriff's Office said in an alert sent via cellphone and email that residents need to leave by 5 p.m.
Earlier, officials went through the town of 5,000 people, knocking on doors to warn about 2,000 of them to leave.
The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office also issued mandatory evacuations in Geyserville, a small town of less than 900 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census data.
More than 265 square miles have burned in urban and rural areas from flames fueled by winds and low humidity.
"We are literally looking at explosive vegetation," he said. "It is very dynamic. These fires are changing by the minute in many areas."
(Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
The wildfires ranked as the third deadliest and most destructive in state history. And officials warned the worst was far from over.
"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 and more resources were pouring in from Oregon, Nevada, Washington and Arizona.
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. Residents manhandled canvas bags into cars jammed with possessions or filled their gas tanks.
Hundreds of extra firefighters from all over the state and beyond joined the battle Tuesday. Brad Alexander, a spokesman for the governor's Office of Emergency Services, said firefighters from throughout the state would join the fight Tuesday, along with fire crews from the U.S. Forest Service in Nevada, the Associated Press reported.
The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office has confirmed 13 fire-related deaths. Officials confirmed three more fire-related deaths in Mendocino County on Wednesday. Sheriff Tom Allman had already confirmed three deaths and several injuries on Tuesday.
In Yuba County, sheriff's deputies discovered a body inside a burned residence in Loma Rica on Tuesday. According to a statement from the sheriff's office, the remains were discovered during a welfare check conducted after a citizen reported a family friend missing at that location following the Cascade Fire evacuations.
Another Yuba County resident died while trying to flee the flames in her vehicle, the county's coroner confirmed Tuesday to KCRA.com.
Two deaths were reported in Napa County Monday, according to Cal Fire.
While in California for a fundraising event for Republican congressional candidates on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence promised federal assistance to California.
“I can assure you, as I did the governor, the federal government stands ready to provide any and all assistance to the state of California as your courageous firefighters and first responders confront this widening challenge,” Pence said.
The dire situation prompted Gov. Brown to declare a state of emergency Monday in Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties, where the most devastating fires have burned.
Charles Rippey, 100, and his 98-year-old wife, Sara, died inside their home, Napa County Sheriff John Robertson said Tuesday. According to the couple's granddaughter, Ruby Gibney, the couple had recently celebrated 75 years of marriage.
"Imagine a wind-whipped fire burning at explosive rates," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott told the AP. "This is 50 miles per hour. Literally, it's burning into the city of Santa Rosa ... burning box stores."
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
He added that this is traditionally the worst time of the year for fires in California.
Marian Williams, a resident of the small Sonoma County town of Kenwood, described the blaze to AP as "an inferno like you've never seen before."
"Trees were on fire like torches," she said.
The Tubbs fire, which ignited around 10 p.m. Sunday, had burned nearly 44 square miles by late Tuesday night. There is no containment on what has been the largest of the infernos, according to Cal Fire.
"There was no wind, then there would be a rush of wind and it would stop," resident Ken Moholt-Siebert told the Los Angeles Times. "Then there would be another gust from a different direction. The flames wrapped around us. I was just being pelted with all this smoke and embers. It was just really fast."
The L.A. Times noted that entire blocks in the Fountaingrove area of Santa Rosa were leveled by the conflagration, and the city’s new fire station, Fire State 5, was destroyed. The fire also burned Santa Rosa’s historic round barn, the city's K-mart, the Santa Rosa Hilton Sonoma Hotel and destroyed homes at the Journey's End Mobile Home Park.
"It’s real bad," Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Tuberville told the L.A. Times. "This is an example of nature in control, and we are doing what we can, but we’re not being that effective at stopping the fire."
The Napa Valley wildfires spread quickly thanks to strong north to northeast winds on the backside of what was Winter Storm Aiden, bringing snow to the Rockies, said weather.com senior meteorologist Jon Erdman, noting that at both the Napa County Airport and in Santa Rosa, 20 to 30 mph winds were common, with slightly higher gusts early Monday morning.
"Surface dewpoints, a measure of moisture in the air, were in the mid-upper teens, lower than values in Las Vegas or Phoenix," Erdman added.
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