At least 26 dead as wind fans California wildfires
Firefighters began to gain ground yesterday 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 yesterday, 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 still listed as missing.
Extreme wind conditions that had been forecast for Wednesday night and early yesterday failed to materialise, 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 of the state, said Ken Pimlot, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Fire teams were "making progress" but were "a long way from being out of the woods," Mr 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 emergency."
One of the greatest immediate threats posed to population centres 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 the 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 yesterday: "You are on your own."
The fires have scorched more than 190,000 acres - an area nearly the size of New York City - and destroyed at least 3,500 buildings, reducing whole neighbourhoods in the city of Santa Rosa to landscapes of ash, smouldering ruins, charred trees and burned-out cars.
The official cause of the disaster was still under investigation.
But power lines knocked down by gale-force winds may have sparked the conflagration.