Fire officials reported further headway on Friday against devastating blazes in Northern California’s wine country but said the death toll of 32, already a record for the state, would likely climb higher with more than 250 people missing.
Even as firefighters gained enough ground for authorities to consider letting some of the estimated 25,000 evacuees return home, they were bracing for more hot, dry winds that could rekindle danger.
Ground crews raced to clear away drought-parched vegetation along the southern flanks of fires, removing highly combustible fuels adjacent to populated areas before extreme heat and winds were forecast to revive over the weekend.
“We’ve challenged the troops to get out there and secure mainly the south parts of these fires in preparation for those strong north winds,” Bret Gouvea, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), said at
an afternoon press conference.
As of Friday afternoon, 17 major wildfires - some encompassing several smaller blazes merged together - have consumed nearly 222,000 acres of dry brush, grasslands and trees across eight counties since erupting on Sunday night.
A woman surveys the remains of a home destroyed by wildfire in Napa, California, US, on October 13, 2017. (Reuters)
The Napa Valley town of Calistoga faced one of the biggest remaining threats. Its 5,000-plus residents were ordered from their homes on Wednesday night as one of the fiercest of the blazes, the so-called Tubbs fire, crept to within 2 miles (3.2 km) of city limits.
On Friday evening, fires continued to rage along mountain ridges overlooking Calistoga, threatening to rain embers onto the town if strong winds blow out of the north as predicted, Cal Fire spokesman Dennis Rein said.
Other communities drafted contingency plans in case of a weekend flare-up, while officials hoped to allow evacuees to return to portions of Santa Rosa that were no longer at risk, Gouvea said.
The 32 confirmed fatalities mark the greatest loss of life from a single fire event on record in California, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles. At least 17 people have died in the Tubbs fire alone, which now ranks as the deadliest single fire in the state since 1991.
Officials expected the death toll to rise as the ruins of burned homes and businesses were searched by recovery teams.
Most of the more than 1,000 people initially listed as unaccounted for have since turned up safe, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said at the news conference, but 256 were still missing.
Giordano said 45 search-and-rescue teams and 18 detectives had been deployed to comb obliterated neighborhoods for more victims.