Hundreds missing, 24 dead in California wildfires as crews gain ground

By Noel Randewich

SONOMA, Calif. (Reuters) – Firefighters began to gain ground on Thursday against the spread of wildfires that have killed at least 24 people in Northern California and left hundreds missing in the pandemonium of mass evacuations in the heart of the state’s wine country.

A brief resurgence of dry, gusty winds threatened to push flames into the Napa Valley town of Calistoga, whose 5,000-plus residents were ordered from their homes on Wednesday night as conditions worsened and 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 on Thursday: “You are on your own.”

Still, extreme wind conditions that had been forecast for Wednesday night and early Thursday failed to materialize, giving crews a chance to begin carving containment lines around the perimeter.

“Overall, we are definitely making progress,” said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told Reuters, adding that the situation was less dire than earlier in the week.

Nearly two dozen blazes spanning eight counties have raged largely unchecked since igniting on Sunday night, scorching more than 190,000 acres (77,000 hectares) – an area nearly the size of New York City – and destroying at least 3,500 homes and other buildings.

Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to panoramas of ash, smoldering ruins, charred trees and burned-out cars by a series of firestorms that rank among the deadliest and most destructive in California’s history.

The official cause of the disaster was under investigation, but power lines knocked down by gale-force winds may have sparked the conflagration.

Twenty-four people, all civilians, have been confirmed dead, the greatest loss of life from a California wildfire event since 1991, and authorities said the death toll could climb higher. Fire officials have said some of the victims were…

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