(SONOMA, Calif.) — Wildfires already well on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history could gain momentum Thursday and erase even the modest gains firefighters have made.
Steady winds with gusts up to 45 mph (72 kph) with nearly non-existent humidity are expected to descend on the areas north of San Francisco where at least 23 people have died and at least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed.
“It’s going to continue to get worse before it gets better,” state fire Chief Ken Pimlott said Wednesday.
Entire cities had evacuated in anticipation of the next wave, their streets empty, the only motion coming from ashes falling like snowflakes.
They included Calistoga, the historic resort town of wine tastings and hot springs, whose 5,300 people are all under evacuation orders. Tens of thousands more were also driven from their homes by the flames. A few left behind cookies for firefighters and signs that read, “Please save our home!”
The 22 fires spanned more than 265 square miles (686 square kilometers) as they entered their fourth day, many of them completely out of control. Modern, strategic attacks that have kept destruction and death tolls low in recent years just haven’t worked against their ferocity.
“We are literally looking at explosive vegetation,” Pimlott said. “Make no mistake,” he later added, “this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event.”
The community of Boyes Hot Springs in Sonoma County also was told to clear out Wednesday, and the streets were quickly lined with cars packed with people 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, where 11,000 people live. “It’ll go up like a candle.”
The ash rained down on the Sonoma Valley, covering windshields, as winds began picking up toward the potentially disastrous forecast speed of 30 mph (48 kph). Countless…