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

Residents in Santa Rosa, Calif., returned to find their homes burnt to the ground after wildfires devastated Northern California. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Myrna Perez, Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

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.

An elderly couple just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. Then the Napa wildfires came.

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.”

Apocalyptic images show the devastation caused by California

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.

The National Weather Service expects “red-flag” conditions — dry air and wind gusts up to 40 mph — to remain until Thursday in the North Bay Area, which includes Sonoma and Napa counties.

More than 25,000 people have fled homes from seven counties north of San Francisco, filling dozens of shelters that state officials had hoped to consolidate in the coming days to provide more-efficient services. Many left houses with nothing, and officials acknowledged Tuesday that it could be weeks before some are able to return to what is left. In Sonoma County, 5,000 people have taken refuge in 36 shelters as of Wednesday morning, officials said.

The scope of the damage prompted President Trump on Tuesday to approve federal emergency assistance to California, agreeing to a request made by Gov. Jerry Brown (D). The declaration, announced by Vice President Pence during a visit to the state’s Office of Emergency Services near Sacramento, provides immediate funds for debris clearing and supplies for evacuation centers, among other aid.

Brown cautioned that recovery would be very costly but seemed optimistic when asked Wednesday about the fires’ impact on California’s economy. The wine industry generates more than $55 billion in economic activity in California — and twice as much nationally — each year.

“Overall California’s economy is very large, about $2.5 trillion . . . The machinery of the markets grind on,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to see a slowdown because of the fires.”

The wildfires, which have already charred 8 million acres of land this year in California and much of the West, represents just one of 22 disasters the federal government is managing across the country, said Mike Cappannari, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA.

The agency has already deployed majority of its staff to help with a series of hurricanes that battered Texas, Florida and the Caribbean islands.

Drone footage from Oct. 10 shows entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, Calif., burned to the ground after wildfires devastated Northern California. (Video: Myrna Perez/The Washington Post)

State officials said that firefighters planned to clear lines between the Atlas Fire and the city of Napa, and between the Tubbs Fire and the city of Santa Rosa — the largest in Sonoma County and gateway to the wine-tourism industry.

Those barriers would protect the areas from the south with the expectation that winds will shift back to the north in the days ahead. Officials said the idea, in the case of the Tubbs Fire, was to prevent a “reburn” of Santa Rosa.

On Wednesday, Ameir Kazemi stood in front of what used to be his business and shrugged his shoulders in frustration. Mohawk Sign Company has been in Santa Rosa for 50 years; Kazemi has owned it for 10. Now it’s a pile of ashes and charred wood.

Friends started calling his cell phone early Monday morning to tell him that his building was in flames, he said. But he decided to stay at home with his pregnant wife. Two hours later, TV stations began broadcasting images of his burning building, located in a strip mall with a gun shop.

Mapping the wildfires in Northern California’s wine country

“It was pretty sickening,” Kazemi said. “I just wanted to come see if there was any chance that anything survive — the artwork, 10 years worth of stuff on my hard drive. It’s all gone.”

The disruption to daily life in a region known as a calm, sometimes intoxicating, tourist destination was immense.

The 100,000 acres of vineyards — the focal point of California’s wine industry and the tourism business built around — remained threatened and, in some cases, damaged or destroyed. The extent of the damage was still unclear.

More than a dozen schools were shuttered in the seven counties most affected by fires, and damage to the power grid meant that everything from charging cellphones to pumping fuel was curtailed.

Nearly 80 cell towers were damaged or destroyed, complicating efforts by even those with a charged battery to contact relatives or call for emergency assistance. The majority of those had been restored by Wednesday afternoon, officials said. The National Guard plans to bring in communications equipment to bolster the network, which state emergency officials called a priority.

Phillips and Achenbach reported from Washington. Lea Donosky in Windsor, Calif.; Breena Kerr in Healdsburg, Calif.; Alissa Greenberg in Berkeley, Calif., and Scott Wilson, Kimberly Kindy, Herman Wong, J. Freedom du Lac and Amy B Wang in Washington contributed to this report, which has been updated.

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The scene as wildfires devastate Northern California’s wine region

Flames overtake a structure as nearby homes burn in theNapa wine region in California on October 9, 2017, as multiple wind-driven fires continue to whip through the region. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSONJOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)