SONOMA, Calif. (Reuters) – Firefighters feared resurgent winds and dry conditions on Wednesday would spread the wildfires that have killed at least 21 people, destroyed 3,500 homes and businesses and blanketed Northern California’s famed wine country in smoke.
Nearly 170,000 acres (68,797 hectares) have been scorched by 22 large fires in what state fire officials say is one of the deadliest wildfire outbreaks in California history.
More than 550 people were still missing in Sonoma County on Wednesday morning, said Jennifer Laroque, a spokeswoman for the county’s emergency operations centers. It was unclear how many were fire victims or had not checked in after evacuating their homes. Officials encouraged evacuees to let their family members know they were all right.
Santa Rosa, located in Sonoma County and the wine country’s largest city, was particularly hard hit by the so-called Tubbs fire. In some neighborhoods, block after block was ravaged, leaving nothing but charred debris, broken walls, chimneys and the steel frames of burned-out cars.
“It’s like driving through a war zone,” J.J. Murphy, 22, one of thousands of evacuees, said of the area around his home in the Sonoma Valley community of Glen Ellen.
Murphy, five relatives, a bird, a dog and two cats piled into their camper van to flee on Monday, he said.
“It’s crazy how in just a few hours a place I’ve recognized all my life I can’t recognize,” he said at a roadside food stop in the town of Sonoma.
Gusts of up to 50 miles per hour (80 kph) and 10 percent humidity are forecast for Wednesday and Thursday for parts of the Northern California fire zone. Firefighters worked on Wednesday to strengthen fire lines ahead of the anticipated increase in winds.
“The potential for new fires that could grow exponentially as these fires did in such a short time period is there,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
The weather had given firefighters a reprieve on Tuesday as cooler temperatures, lower winds and coastal fog let them make headway against the fires that had mostly burned in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties, north of San Francisco.
At least 11 people have been killed by the Tubbs fire in Sonoma County, officials said. It is the deadliest California wildfire since 2003, when a fire killed 15 people in San Diego, according to state data.
Asked about the high number of fatalities, Cal Fire assistant deputy director Daniel Berlant said by phone that some victims were asleep when the fast-moving fires broke out on Sunday night, igniting their homes before they could escape.
In Napa County, the dead included 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his 98-year-old wife, Sarah, according to the county sheriff’s office. The couple were married for 75 years, a CBS affiliate in San Francisco reported, citing their son, Mike.
Charles Rippey’s body was found outside where his wife’s bedroom once stood, Mike Rippey said.
“He was trying to get from his room to her room,” he said. “He never made it.”
Wildfires have damaged or demolished at least 13 Napa Valley wineries, a trade group for vintners there said on Tuesday. But experts say smoke rather than flames may pose a greater risk to the delicate grapes still waiting to be picked.
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in several northern counties, as well as in Orange County in Southern California, where officials said a fire destroyed 15 structures and damaged 12.
Investigators still are determining what caused the fires, Berlant said. In some instances, winds might have toppled power poles and sparked flames, he said.
Additional reporting by Stephen Lam and Marc Vartabedian in Santa Rosa, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Keith Coffman in Denver, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Bill Trott