Fueled by the return of strong winds, the wildfires tearing through California wine country exploded in size and number Wednesday as authorities ordered new evacuations and the death toll climbed to 23 — a figure expected to rise.
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.”
The entire historic town of Calistoga, population 5,000, was evacuated. In neighboring Sonoma County, authorities issued an evacuation advisory for part of the town of Sonoma and the community of Boyes Hot Springs. By that time, the streets were lined with cars packed with people fleeing.
“That’s very bad,” resident Nick Hinman said when a deputy sheriff warned him that the driving winds could shift the wildfires toward the town of Sonoma proper, where 11,000 people live. “It’ll go up like a candle.”
Ash rained down on the Sonoma Valley, covering windshields, as winds began picking up toward the potentially disastrous forecast speed of 30 mph. Cars of evacuees raced away from the flames while countless emergency vehicles sped toward them, sirens blaring. Residents manhandled canvas bags into cars jammed with possessions or filled their gas tanks.
The wildfires are on their way to becoming the 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,” Pimlott said.
The fires have burned through a staggering 265 square miles (686 square kilometers) of urban and rural areas. High winds and low humidity made conditions ideal for fire to ignite virtually anywhere on ground or brush.
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 Wednesday, alongside the state’s top emergency officials.
Text from the AP news story, Winds expected to drive next wave of deadly California fires, by Ellen Knickmeyer And Jocelyn Gecker.
Find the AP’s complete wildfire coverage here: https://apnews.com/tag/Wildfires.