By Alexandria Sage
SONOMA, Calif. (Reuters) – Firefighters feared resurgent winds and dry conditions on Wednesday would spread the wildfires that have killed at least 21 people, destroyed 3,500 homes and businesses and blanketed Northern California’s famed wine country in smoke.
Nearly 170,000 acres (68,797 hectares) have been scorched by 22 large fires in what state fire officials say is one of the deadliest wildfire outbreaks in California history.
More than 550 people were still missing in Sonoma County on Wednesday morning, said Jennifer Laroque, a spokeswoman for the county’s emergency operations centers. It was unclear how many were fire victims or had not checked in after evacuating their homes. Officials encouraged evacuees to let their family members know they were all right.
Santa Rosa, located in Sonoma County and the wine country’s largest city, was particularly hard hit by the so-called Tubbs fire. In some neighborhoods, block after block was ravaged, leaving nothing but charred debris, broken walls, chimneys and the steel frames of burned-out cars.
“It’s like driving through a war zone,” J.J. Murphy, 22, one of thousands of evacuees, said of the area around his home in the Sonoma Valley community of Glen Ellen.
Murphy, five relatives, a bird, a dog and two cats piled into their camper van to flee on Monday, he said.
“It’s crazy how in just a few hours a place I’ve recognized all my life I can’t recognize,” he said at a roadside food stop in the town of Sonoma.
Gusts of up to 50 miles per hour (80 kph) and 10 percent humidity are forecast for Wednesday and Thursday for parts of the Northern California fire zone. Firefighters worked on Wednesday to strengthen fire lines ahead of the anticipated increase in winds.
“The potential for new fires that could grow exponentially as these fires did in such a short time period is there,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
The weather had given…