SONOMA, Calif. (Reuters) – Firefighters began to gain ground on Thursday against wildfires that have killed at least 29 people in Northern California and left hundreds missing in the chaos of mass evacuations in the heart of the state’s wine country.
The latest casualty figures, revised upward by six fatalities on Thursday, marked the greatest loss life from a single California wildfire event in 84 years. With 3,500 homes and businesses incinerated, the so-called North Bay fires also rank among the most destructive in state history.
The fires have scorched more than 190,000 acres (77,000 hectares), an area nearly the size of New York City, reducing whole neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa to gray ash and smoldering ruins dotted with charred trees and burned-out cars.
The official cause of the disaster was under investigation, but officials said power lines toppled by gale-force winds on Sunday night may have sparked the conflagration.
A resurgence of extreme wind conditions that had been forecast for Wednesday night and early Thursday failed to materialize, giving fire crews a chance to start carving containment lines around the perimeter of some of the blazes.
But fierce winds were expected to return across much of the state as early as Friday night, and a force of 8,000 firefighters in Northern California were racing to reinforce and extend buffer lines before then, officials said.
Despite progress, fire crews remained “a long way from being out of the woods,” Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told reporters 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.”
Authorities have warned that the death toll from the spate of more than 20 fires raging across eight counties for a fourth day could climb higher, with more than 400 people in Sonoma County alone still listed as missing.