‘Catastrophic Event': Death Toll Rises to 23 as Northern California Fires Spread

Fires have destroyed more than 3,500 homes and businesses, scorched in excess of 170,000 acres — or roughly 265 square miles — and forced at least 20,000 people to evacuate since Sunday

What to Know

  • At least 23 people killed by multiple fires
  • Estimated 170,000 acres charred across California
  • 3,500 homes and businesses gutted in NorCal

THURSDAY, OCT. 12: The fires have killed 27, destroyed more than 3,500 homes and businesses, scorched nearly 300 square miles and forced at least 20,000 people to evacuate since Sunday, officials said. Meanwhile, firefighters are still struggling to contain the fast-moving flames.

For our latest coverage on the Northern California wildfires click here.

Firefighters in Northern California are still struggling to contain more than a dozen fast-moving wildfires scorching the state's world-famous wine country as officials warn that strong winds could further threaten the fight against the blazes. 

Twenty-two blazes across California — primarily spread across eight counties in Northern California — have killed at least 23 people, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott said. The death toll includes 13 in Sonoma County, two in Napa County, two in Yuba County and six in Mendocino County.

"Make no mistake, this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event," Pimlott said.

Fires across the state have destroyed more than 3,500 homes and businesses, scorched in excess of 170,000 acres — or roughly 265 square miles — and forced at least 20,000 people to evacuate since Sunday, officials said Wednesday.[[450471713, C]]

The latest mandatory evacuation Wednesday afternoon included all of Calistoga, a city of about 5,300 in Napa County.

"This is just pure devastation, and it's going to take us a while to get out and comb through all of this," said Pimlott. He added that the state had "several days of fire weather conditions to come."

"We've had big fires in the past," Gov. Jerry Brown said. "This is one of the biggest, most serious, and it's not over."

The National Weather Service on Tuesday issued a Red Flag Warning — ideal conditions for fire ignition and spread — for the North Bay mountains and East Bay hills. The alert remains in effect through Thursday afternoon. 

Due to low humidity and strong winds, communities in Yuba, Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Humboldt, Mendocino, Butte, Nevada and Calaveras counties are experiencing "heavy fire activity," according to the California Office of Emergency Services.

The largest of the blazes burning over a 200-mile region hit Napa and Sonoma counties, both home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. The Atlas Fire has burned over 42,000 acres in Napa and Solano counties and is 3 percent contained; the Tubbs Fire has scorched 28,000 acres in Napa County and is zero percent contained; the Nuns Fire has burned 7,626 acres in Sonoma County and is 2 percent contained; the Partrick-Carneros Fire has charred over 9,500 acres and is 2 percent contained, the Pocket Fire has burned 1,800 acres in Sonoma County, officials said. [[450521403, C]]

At least three other fires are also charring acreage in areas north of Sonoma and Napa counties. The Redwood/Potter Fire has charred 29,500 acres in Mendocino County and is 5 percent contained; the Sulphur Fire has spread to 2,500 acres in Lake County as is 40 percent contained; the Cascade Fire in Yuba county has grown to 12,349 acres and is 20 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said Wednesday there has been "very aggressive" fire behavior with a "rapid spread." "We had a lot of winds that pushed the fire in a lot of directions," he said, posing significant challenges to first responders.

Unfortunately, Thursday promises to be more of the same due to the high fire risk. Biermann warned people that wine country will experience more "extreme fire behavior and growth" to the multiple blazes.[[450364303, C]]

Area hospitals have reported treating more than 100 patients with fire-related injuries. Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said Wednesday morning that officials had received 670 missing persons reports. Of them, 110 people had been found. 

"We are not switching operations to anything but life saving right now," he said. "It's all about life saving and evacuations."

By the afternoon hours, the number of missing persons in Sonoma County dropped to 380, Giordano said.

County spokesman Scott Alonso said that the growing number of missing person reports is, in part, due to a lack of cellphone connectivity in the affected areas. Seventy-three cellphone towers between Santa Rosa and the Oregon border are out of commission, he said, which makes it a challenge for people to find their loved ones. 

Those figures are likely to climb in the coming days as more information is reported.[[450367473, C]]

Mandatory and volunteer evacuations were widespread in Napa and Sonoma counties and stretched into Solano County late Monday night and into Tuesday.

"I think they underestimate how powerful and how dangerous (fires) can be," Giordano said. "That's why I say if you're in an advisory, you got a place to go, go. You don't need to be here."

By Wednesday, the mandatory orders had reached Calistoga — where Oakland police went door to door to help people get to safety in time — and covered a broader swath of Sonoma County. 

Supervisor Diane Dillon, whose district includes Calistoga, said roughly 2,000 of the city's 5,000 residents were impacted by the early morning evacuation order. Of them, most had already left their homes, while others were ready with their bags packed. 

Several evacuation centers have opened for residents to take shelter.

Destructive and deadly wildfires in the North Bay continued to burn out of control Monday night and into Tuesday morning, sending more people fleeing their homes and still others on edge, preparing their potential escape. Damian Trujillo reports.

Chris Childs from the Napa County CHP office asked for people's "continued patience." 

"It's a tough message," to be told that "you can't go back to your homes," he said. 

At one point, an estimated 3,200 people were staying in 28 shelters across Napa and Sonoma counties.

"We understand that being displaced from your home is frustrating," said Belia Ramos, chairwoman of the Napa County board of supervisors. It comes with a set of "complex emotions," she said, but unfortunately, officials are unable to provide residents with an estimate for when they may be able to return home. [[450418603, C]]

"It's simply not safe," she said, adding that during a tour to part of the burned area she saw downed power lines and parts of residences that were smoldering. Life safety continues to be the foremost priority, Ramos said.

David Leal, 55, and his wife and stepson salvaged a few decorative items from their Santa Rosa home, including a wind chime, tiles from the backsplash in the kitchen, a decorative sun and a cross.

"Our plan is to keep those things, and when we rebuild, they’ll be mementos of what we’ve lived through, and of, just, resilience," Leal said. "It’s hard not to get emotional."[[450153703, C]]

In the meantime, Leal got a post office box, so the family can get mail, a new laptop and some clothes. They’re living out of their two vehicles for now.

"We’ll be back home again sooner than later, and with our chins held high," he said, choking back tears. "And hopefully we’ll be amongst our neighbors and friends as they do the same."

Leal, a U.S. Navy veteran, evacuated with his family, two dogs and cat to nearby Petaluma late Sunday after seeing fierce, hot winds and flames whipping in the distance.

“We didn’t have time to think about what to grab. We grabbed what we saw,” he said. He got his external hard drive, which was lying out, but left his laptop.[[383833041, C]]

Gov. Brown declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma, Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada, Solano and Yuba counties. Vice President Mike Pence, who visited the state Tuesday, said at an event near Sacramento that the federal government stands with California as it takes on the blazes.

Congressman Mike Thompson stressed "how serious and devastating this fire is on the people in our area." He said Tuesday that the federal government has been "incredibly responsive." Federal assistance and public grants are being made available to affected areas. 

"The resources that are needed are coming," Thompson promised. He also urged residents to pay attention to first responders' instructions. 

He continued: "Please listen to them. Please heed all their warnings and take all their directions."[[450295843, C]]

President Donald Trump said he spoke Monday night with Gov. Brown to "let him know that the federal government will stand with the people of California. And we will be there for you in this time of terrible tragedy and need."

In some torched neighborhoods, fire hydrants still had hoses attached, apparently abandoned by firefighters who had to flee. 

The fires sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 60 miles away.

A thick, smoky haze cloaked wine country, where neighborhoods hit by the fires were completely leveled.[[450133483, C]]

A number of wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties also were burned.

One key Napa County vintner says at least five wineries in his trade group are destroyed or seriously damaged in a region synonymous with excellent food and wine.

The Napa Valley Vintners association earlier Tuesday had put the number at four. But board chairman Michael Honig said the latest count was five. He said damage was to facilities, and the group does not know about vineyards.

Cal Fire urged people to refrain from flying drones because it hindered air assaults on flames. Officials also described the fire as a "life safety event," and said that crews are not yet in firefighting mode. The goal is to evacuate people and ensure their safety.[[450214623, C]]

Among the more prominent structures damaged in the fires were Cardinal Newman High School and the Hilton Hotel in Santa Rosa.

The destructive blazes and high winds, which fanned the flames and toppled power lines, have left tens of thousands of people across the North Bay without power, according to PG&E. Roughly 53,000 customers are without power, with the majority of them in Sonoma and Napa counties, PG&E reported Wednesday.

Most schools in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties were closed through the end of the week. [[450084303, C]]

Santa Rosa officials also issued a curfew order for affected burn areas at 6:45 p.m. until sunrise. Evacuees are instructed not to return to their homes until evacuation orders are lifted, they said.

The wildfire ripped through the historic Stornetta Dairy off Highway 12 in Sonoma County.

In Napa, the fire destroyed a water pump station in the Silverado Country Club area, prompting the city to issue a boil-water notice for customers on Hagen Road, Woodland Drive, Syar Drive, Holly Court and Old Coach Road. Boil water notices were also issued for some residents in the Fountain Grove area of Santa Rosa.[[450444163, C]]

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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