‘A serious, critical, catastrophic event’: At least 21 dead as California wildfires spread

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The deadly wildfires devastating Northern California continued to spread across dry hills and vineyards Wednesday, prompting more evacuations from a menacing arc of flames that has killed at least 21 people, destroyed more than 3,500 buildings and battered the region’s renowned wine-growing industry.

Officials expect the death toll to rise as crews begin to reach heavily burned areas. Hundreds in flame-ravaged Sonoma County remain missing, and higher winds coupled with low humidity and parched lands could hamper efforts to contain the fires or create new ones.

“It’s going to continue to get worse before it gets better,” Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said at a news conference Wednesday.

What makes these fast-moving fires particularly dangerous, Pimlott said, is that they “aren’t just in the backwoods. . . . These fires are burning in and around developed communities.”

Nearly two dozen large fires have been raging in the northern part of the state, sending thousands of residents to evacuation centers and burning roughly 170,000 acres — a collective area larger than the city of Chicago. That size is likely to grow.

Pimlott said he’s worried that “several of these fires will merge.”

“This is a serious, critical, catastrophic event,” he said.

The cause of the fires was unknown and likely to remain so for some time, officials said.

“Trying to speculate on any cause is premature. At this point, it’s way too early to talk about it,” Pimlott said. “Primary efforts are stopping the fire and protecting lives.”

Officials continue to order evacuations, including one Wednesday afternoon covering the entire city of Calistoga in Napa County.

Sonoma County Sheriff Rober Giordano said crews had not been able to reach most of the areas called “hot zones” that were immolated in the firestorm. When they begin searching those areas, “I expect that [death toll] to go up.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, 285 people in the county remain unaccounted for, Giordano said. It’s unclear if those who are still 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.

Evacuation zones in Sonoma County will remain off limits, partly to limit the possibility of looting, which has resulted in several arrests. Giordano doubts residents will be allowed to return to their homes this week.

“If you have a place to go, go; you don’t need to be here,” Giordano said, adding later: “I can’t stress this enough. If you’re in an evacuation zone, you cannot come home.”

Losses are equally grim in Mendocino County, where two fires had merged into one, and the death toll climbed from two to six in the last 24 hours.

“What’s irking people around here is the national news is only talking about Napa and Sonoma, and we’ve lost just as much here,” Alison de Grassi, spokeswoman for the Mendocino County Tourism Commission, told the San Jose Mercury News. “People have built their lives around these wineries and these ranches, and now they’re gone.”

High winds that whipped up 22 large wildfires had faded Tuesday, and humidity increased, assisting an operation that has drawn resources from throughout the state and neighboring Nevada. But the sharp northern wind, known as a Diablo, soon returned, allowing only a brief window for firefighters to carve clearings in place to stop the fires from spreading to vulnerable populated areas.

Via: The washington post

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