SONOMA, Calif., (Reuters) – Fire officials reported further headway yesterday against devastating blazes in Northern California’s wine country but said the death toll of 34, already a record for the state, would likely climb higher with more than 250 people missing.
Even as firefighters gained enough ground for authorities to consider letting some of the estimated 25,000 evacuees return home, they were bracing for more hot, dry winds that could escalate the threat to communities still in harm’s way.
Ground crews raced to clear away drought-parched vegetation along the southern flanks of fires, removing highly combustible fuels adjacent to populated areas before extreme heat and winds were forecast to revive over the weekend.
“We’ve challenged the troops to get out there and secure mainly the south parts of these fires in preparation for those strong north winds,” Bret Gouvea, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), said at an afternoon press conference.
As of Friday afternoon, 17 major wildfires – some encompassing several smaller blazes merged together – have consumed nearly 222,000 acres of dry brush, grasslands and trees across eight counties since erupting on Sunday night.
Officials have said power lines toppled by gale-force winds the first night may have sparked the conflagration, though the official cause remained under investigation.
The fires have destroyed at least 5,700 homes and other buildings, Cal Fire said, with much of the devastation centered in and around the Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa, where whole neighborhoods were reduced to gray ash and smoldering ruins.
Some victims were asleep when flames engulfed their homes, and many survivors had only minutes to flee.
The Napa Valley town of Calistoga faced one of the biggest remaining threats. Its 5,000-plus residents were ordered from their homes on Wednesday night as one of the fiercest of the blazes, the so-called Tubbs fire, crept to within 2 miles (3.2 km) of city limits.
On Friday evening, fires continued to rage along mountain ridges overlooking Calistoga, threatening to rain embers onto the town if strong winds blow out of the north as predicted, Cal Fire spokesman Dennis Rein said.
Other communities drafted contingency plans in case of a weekend flare-up, while officials hoped to allow evacuees to return to portions of Santa Rosa that were no longer at risk, Gouvea said.
The 34 confirmed fatalities mark the greatest loss of life from a single fire event on record in California, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles. At least 17 people have died in the Tubbs fire alone, which now ranks as the deadliest single fire in the state since 1991.
Officials expected the death toll to rise as the ruins of burned homes and businesses were searched by recovery teams.
Most of the more than 1,000 people initially listed as unaccounted for have since turned up safe, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said at the news conference, but 256 were still missing.
Giordano said 45 search-and-rescue teams and 18 detectives had been deployed to comb obliterated neighborhoods for more victims.
Winds of up to 60 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour) and humidity of just 10 percent were expected to create “critical fire weather conditions” and “contribute to extreme fire behavior” on Friday evening and into Saturday, the National Weather Service said.
At a fairground converted to a shelter in the nearby city of Petaluma, about 250 cots were full by Friday, and people slept in tents in the parking lot as volunteers served porridge and eggs for breakfast.
Yasmin Gonzalez, 28, her four children and husband, a grape picker, were anxious to leave the shelter and return to their apartment in Sonoma.
“It’s horrible to leave your home, and your things and not know what’s going to happen,” Gonzalez said on Friday.
The region’s health system has also been weakened by the fires. Kaiser Permanente was forced to close its Santa Rosa medical center and pharmacy, and many doctors and small practices evacuated.
Kaiser said on Friday that it was rerouting patients, some of whom complained of respiratory ailments as a result of smoke, to nearby medical centers. At least 40 Sonoma County physicians have lost their homes in the fires, leaving the county medical association to seek alternative accommodations for them, agency director Wendy Young said.
The year’s wildfire season is one of the worst in history in the United States, with nearly 8.6 million acres (3.5 million hectares) burned so far, just behind 2012, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In the worst year, 2015, about 9.3 million acres burned.
The fires in California’s world-renowned wine-producing region have wreaked havoc on its tourist industry and damaged or destroyed more than a dozen Napa Valley wineries.
The state’s newly legalized marijuana industry was also hit hard, with at least 20 pot farms in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties ravaged, a growers’ association said.