* Wind conditions expected to worsen again
* Napa Valley town of Calistoga evacuated
* 400-plus reported missing in Sonoma County
(Adds details from Cal Fire and emergency management news
conference; extreme winds expected to return)
By Noel Randewich
SONOMA, Calif., Oct 12 (Reuters) - Firefighters began to
gain ground on Thursday against wildfires that have killed at
least 26 people in Northern California and left hundreds missing
in the pandemonium of mass evacuations in the heart of the
state's wine country.
The latest casualty figures, revised upward by three
fatalities on Thursday, marked the greatest loss life from a
single California wildfire event in 84 years.
Authorities have warned that the death toll from a spate of
more than 20 fires raging across eight counties for a fourth day
could climb higher, with hundreds of people in Sonoma County
alone still listed as missing.
Extreme wind conditions that had been forecast for Wednesday
night and early Thursday failed to materialize, giving fire
crews a chance to start carving containment lines around the
perimeter of some of the blazes.
Some 8,000 firefighters hurried to extend those buffer lines
before another bout of dry, gusty weather was expected to return
this weekend across much the state, said Ken Pimlot, director of
the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal
Fire teams were "making progress" but were "a long way from
being out of the woods," Pimlot said at a news conference in
Sacramento, the state capital.
Mark Ghilarducci, state director of emergency services,
added that: "We are not even close to being out of this
'YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN'
One of greatest immediate threats posed to population
centers continued to be in the Napa Valley town of Calistoga,
whose 5,000-plus residents were ordered from their homes on
Wednesday night as winds picked up and fire crept closer.
Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said anyone refusing to heed
the mandatory evacuation would be left to fend for themselves if
fire approached, warning on Thursday: "You are on your own."
The fires have scorched more than 190,000 acres (77,000
hectares) - an area nearly the size of New York City - and
destroyed at least 3,500 buildings, reducing whole neighborhoods
in the city of Santa Rosa to gray landscapes of ash, smoldering
ruins, charred trees and burned-out cars.
The official cause of the disaster was under investigation,
but power lines knocked down by gale-force winds may have
sparked the conflagration.
Twenty-six people, all civilians, were confirmed dead,
surpassing the human toll of California's second-deadliest blaze
on record, a firestorm that claimed 25 lives as it swept the
Oakland Hills east of San Francisco in October 1991. The 1933
Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles had the highest death toll of
Fire officials have said some victims from the latest fires
were asleep when flames engulfed their homes. Others had only
minutes to escape as winds of over 60 mph fanned fast moving
blazes. Ghilarducci said the loss of cellular communications
towers likely contributed to difficulties in warning residents
by mobile phone alerts.
"We have found bodies that were completely intact, and we
have found bodies that were no more than ash and bone," Sonoma
County Sheriff Rob Giordano told reporters. He added that
recovery teams would begin searching ruins with cadaver dogs.
As many as 900 missing-persons reports had been filed in
Sonoma County alone, although 437 have since turned up safe,
It remained unclear how many of the 463 still listed as
unaccounted for might be actual fire victims rather than
evacuees who failed to alert authorities after fleeing their
homes, he said.
"The best we can pray for is that they haven't checked in,"
emergency operations spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque told Reuters.
The fiercest of the blazes, the so-called Tubbs fire,
accounted for 14 of the fatalities, all in Sonoma County, making
it the deadliest single blaze since 2003, according to state
SMOKE, ASH IN BAY AREA
About 25,000 people remained displaced on Wednesday as the
fires belched smoke that drifted over the San Francisco Bay
area, about 50 miles to the south, where visibility was shrouded
in haze and automobiles were coated with ash.
The National Weather Service warned on Thursday morning of
persistent "critical fire weather conditions" in the fire zone
for the next three days, with no rain expected and dry winds
from the north with gusts upward of 35 miles per hour (55 kph).
The Tubbs fire on Thursday was within 2 miles (3 km) of
Calistoga, which had appeared to be in the path of advancing
flames but was spared on the first night of the fires.
Whether the town burns "is going to depend on the wind,"
Calistoga's Fire Chief Steve Campbell told Reuters early on
Thursday. "High winds are predicted but we have not received
New evacuations also were issued in Sonoma County late on
Wednesday for parts of Santa Rosa, the largest city in the
wine-producing region, and Geyserville, an unincorporated town
of 800 people.
While the cause of the fires have not been determined, they
are thought to have been sparked by power lines toppled by
gale-force winds and fanned by arid winds that blew into
Northern California toward the Pacific on Sunday night.
Wildfires have damaged or demolished at least 13 Napa Valley
wineries, a vintners' trade group said on Tuesday.
In addition to high winds, the fires have been stoked by an
abundance of thick brush left ready to burn by a dry, hot
(Additional reporting by Stephen Lam, Dan Whitcomb, Steve
Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Sharon Bernstein in
Sacramento, Jonathan Allen in New York, Brendan O'Brien in
Milwaukee and Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Writing and
additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by
Bill Trott and Andrew Hay)
First Published: 2017-10-12 02:57:27
Updated 2017-10-12 22:43:42
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