California wildfires: Strong winds fuel spread of ‘catastrophic event’; death toll at 23

SONOMA, Calif.– Fueled by the return of strong winds, the wildfires tearing through California wine country exploded in size and number Wednesday as authorities ordered new evacuations and the death toll climbed to 23 — a figure expected to rise higher still.

Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed at least 3,500 homes and businesses.

“We are literally looking at explosive vegetation,” said Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “It is very dynamic. These fires are changing by the minute in many areas.”

The entire historic town of Calistoga, population 5,000, was evacuated. In neighboring Sonoma County, authorities issued an evacuation advisory for part of the town of Sonoma and the community of Boyes Hot Springs. By that time, lines of cars were already fleeing.

“That’s very bad,” resident Nick Hinman said when a deputy sheriff warned him that the driving winds could shift the wildfires toward the town of Sonoma proper, with 11,000 residents. “It’ll go up like a candle.”

Ash snowed over the Sonoma Valley, covering windshields, as winds began picking up toward the potentially disastrous forecast speed of 30 mph. Cars of evacuees raced away from the flames while countless emergency vehicles sped toward them, sirens blaring. Residents manhandled canvas bags into cars jammed with possessions or filled their gas tanks.

The wildfires ranked as the third deadliest and most destructive in state history. And officials warned the worst was far from over.

“Make no mistake, this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event,” Pimlott said.

The fires have burned through a staggering 265 square miles (686 square kilometers) of urban and rural areas. High winds and low humidity made conditions ideal for fire to ignite virtually anywhere on ground or brush that was parched from years of…

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