The death toll rose to 23 on Wednesday night from the rapidly spreading firestorm in California wine country as firefighters were battling the return of dangerous winds that sparked new evacuations.
All residents of Calistoga and Geyserville were ordered to leave their homes as firefighters braced for a tough fight overnight on numerous fronts of the fires. About 8:20 p.m., mandatory evacuations were also issued for parts of eastern Sonoma Valley, including Castle Road and 7th Street East north of Lovall Valley Road.
Napa city officials issued evacuation advisories for neighborhoods along the eastern edges of the city, warning residents to be prepared to leave. Just before 9 p.m., Santa Rosa police also issued an evacuation advisory for neighborhoods in the city’s eastern end, while other neighborhoods along the north end of the city are under mandatory evacuation orders.
“The fire is not an imminent threat, but the conditions may change quickly,” police said.
In Sonoma County alone, 25,000 people have evacuated, county spokesman Scott Alonso said late Wednesday.
“If there’s been a mandatory evacuation, you cannot go home,” Alonso said. “The area is unsafe.”
Meanwhile, Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies are working to track down 285 out of 600 people reported missing. The rest — 315 people — have already been found safe. Alonso asked people to notify officials if they have found their missing loved ones.
Power remained out at 40,000 homes across the county.
A red flag warning forecasting dangerous fire conditions took effect Wednesday evening in the Bay Area. Weather officials expect strong winds with gusts as high as 50 mph. Combined with dry fuels and low humidity, fires have the potential to spread quickly, according to the National Weather Service.
The warning took effect at 5 p.m. in the North Bay Mountains and will take effect at 11 p.m. in the East Bay Hills, Santa Cruz Mountains and mountains in Monterey and San Benito counties.
“It’s a good heads-up to all the firefighters and emergency management that the conditions are going to be pretty bad in terms of the fire behaviors,” said Will Pi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “We’re expecting the strongest winds to be tonight and tomorrow morning.”
State and federal officials portrayed an all-out effort to fend off the devastating wildfires at a news conference at a state emergency operations center outside Sacramento.
“It’s an extremely stressful and challenging time,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “We are all hands on deck.”
The situation remains very dangerous, officials said.
“We’re not going to be out of the woods for a great many days to come,” said Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott. The state is still feeling the effects of the drought despite a recent wet winter, and there’s “explosive vegetation” fueling the blazes.
“We’ve had big fires in the past,” Gov. Jerry Brown said. “This is one of the biggest.”
Officials said 13 people have died in Sonoma County, six in Mendocino County, two in Yuba County and two in Napa County.
Crews launched a desperate effort to extinguish key hot spots before heavy, fire-stoking winds could kick back up later in the day.
Officials fear that strong winds forecast for Wednesday evening and Thursday morning will spread embers from the deadly Tubbs fire to populated areas of Santa Rosa and Calistoga that have so far been spared the flames — and new evacuation orders were issued. Shelters opened for evacuees will not ask anyone’s immigration status, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said.
“We are facing some pretty significant monsters,” Cal Fire incident commander Bret Gouvea told a room of about 200 firefighters and law enforcement officials at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds staging area Wednesday morning.
Exhausted and sore firefighters fanned across scorched mountainsides attacking hot spots, chopping shrubs and using shovels and axes to clear smooth paths down to bare soil roughly four feet wide as possible.
They were taking advantage of a lull in erratic winds to extinguish as many embers as possible and contain portions of fires burning out of control near populated areas before north winds were expected to pick up after midnight. Forecasts call for winds of up to 35 mph on mountaintops and heavily forested ridgelines north of Santa Rosa and Calistoga.
In a worst-case scenario, the winds would shoot embers into still-green terrain, igniting walls of flame that could march back into already devastated communities such as Santa Rosa.
“The clock is ticking, so we’re giving it everything we’ve got — hand crews, fire engines, bulldozers, air support — to keep the fire within the perimeter,” Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said, while using a razor-sharp blade to slice through dry grass and stubborn roots.