SANTA ROSA (Reuters): Firefighters from around the United States were joining the grim battle on Thursday against massive wildfires that have killed at least 23 people and are among the worst in California´s history.
Dry, gusty winds were returning to the area, hampering the efforts of thousands of exhausted firefighters seeking to contain nearly two dozen blazes raging across the western state.
The National Weather Service said wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour were forecast in some areas and the “critical fire weather conditions” would continue into the weekend.
Evacuation orders were issued for more towns in wine-producing Napa and Sonoma counties where hundreds of people have already lost their homes to the fast-moving infernos.
Residents of Calistoga, a resort town of some 5,000 people in Napa, and Geyserville, a town of around 800 people in Sonoma, were told to leave their homes and seek shelter elsewhere.
Entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa have been reduced to ashes and evacuation orders were issued for more parts of the devastated city of 175,000 people in Sonoma County.
“We’ve had big fires in the past,” California Governor Jerry Brown said at a briefing Wednesday. “This is one of the biggest, most serious.
“It’s not over.”
Twenty-three deaths have been reported so far – 13 in Sonoma County, six in Mendocino County, two in Yuba County and two in Napa County – but officials have warned they expect the toll to rise.
The Sonoma County Sheriff´s Department said Wednesday it has received around 600 reports of missing persons.
Some 300 have been located and the authorities are hopeful that most of the rest would eventually be found safe, unable so far to contact relatives or friends because of poor communications.
More than 300 fire engines from neighboring states and elsewhere are being rushed to California to help battle the blazes along with 60 firefighting crews.
“This is a serious, critical, catastrophic event,” California fire chief Ken Pimlott told reporters Wednesday. “Our primary goal is to get these resources into the fires.”
Pimlott, the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), said the lingering effects of five years of drought were fueling the fires.
“We are literally looking at explosive vegetation,” he said.
Thousands of people have been left homeless and 25,000 people have evacuated their homes in Sonoma County alone, according to officials.
More than 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed including several wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties, the heart of the state´s wine production.
Pimlott said firefighters were battling a total of 22 wildfires that have burned over 170,000 acres.
He said 73 helicopters, 30 air tankers and nearly 8,000 firefighters were currently taking part in the effort to extinguish the blazes.
President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in California, freeing up federal funding and resources to help fight the fires, and Governor Brown has declared a state of emergency in eight counties.
Michael Desmond, 63, was among the hundreds of residents of the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa who lost their homes.
“I feel violated; like a thief came in,” said Desmond, who sobbed as he surveyed the rubble of the house where he grew up.
Among the wineries that reportedly suffered damage were William Hill Estate Winery in Napa, Signorello Vineyards, Stags´ Leap and Chimney Rock.
Forest fires are common in the western United States during dry, hot months but this year´s blazes in California are among the deadliest ever.
The Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles County in 1933 killed at least 29 people and 25 people died in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.