Fierce winds and arid conditions are creating a massive challenge for firefighters struggling to stop the advance of unprecedented wildfires in Northern California.
At least 25 people have lost their lives and more than 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed along with some of the state's most lucrative vineyards.
Since Sunday, 22 explosive fires have ripped across a swathe of the Golden State north of the Bay Area, spanning nine counties and scorching around 170,000 acres.
"We’re not out of the woods and we’re not going to be out of the woods for a great number of days to come," Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told a news conference.
The weather gave firefighters a brief reprieve on Tuesday as cooler temperatures, lower winds and coastal fog let them make headway against the flames.
However, gusts of up to 80 kilometers per hour and 10 percent humidity have been forecast for Thursday in parts of the Northern California fire zone.
Firefighters worked on Wednesday to strengthen blaze containment lines as winds picked up again.
The latest death toll, including six fatalities in Mendocino County and two more each in Napa and Yuba counties, is believed to mark the greatest loss of life from a California wildfire in 26 years.
25 people died in a firestorm that swept 1,500 acres of the Oakland Hills in October 1991, destroying 2,840 homes and 425 apartments.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said by phone that some of the latest victims in Northern California were asleep when the fast-moving fires broke out on Sunday night, igniting their homes before they could escape.
The Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa, the largest city in the wine country region, was particularly hard-hit by one of the fiercest blazes, the so-called Tubbs fire. Block by block, entire suburban subdivisions were reduced to ashes and scorched debris. In many cases, the only things left standing were chimneys, broken walls, the steel frames of burned-out cars, and the occasional lawn decoration such as a blackened lawn gnome or clay jack-o-lanterns.
More than 550 people were still reported missing in Sonoma County on Wednesday morning, said Jennifer Laroque, a spokeswoman for the county's emergency operations center. Friends and relatives continue to search the region's hospitals and shelters and plead for help on social media.
It was unclear how many might be actual fire victims rather than evacuees who merely failed to check in with authorities after fleeing their homes. Officials urged displaced residents to let their family members know they were safe.
As her Santa Rosa home burned, 69-year-old Linda Tunis told her daughter “I'm going to die” before the phone call abruptly dropped.
"We've been to 17 evacuation centers. We've called probably 12 hospitals. I mean, my whole family, all my friends looking for her," daughter Jessica Tunis told Associated Press. "I hope someone got her in time and she can't tell people who she is. Please just help me. If you've seen her, please call me."
California's six-year drought officially ended last winter amid the “atmospheric river” storms that inundated the state with massive amounts of rain, but officials say that much of the vegetation never recovered. The firestorms are also being fueled by new growth including tall grasses, trees and weeds. Coupled with the critically dry conditions of this past summer and fall, Northern California is now forced to contend with the current wind-whipped inferno marching across the forests and vineyards of Northern California.
Climate change has certainly played a role in the current firestorms as rising temperatures extend the fire season and create highly flammable land conditions.
“Just as this year’s hurricanes were more fierce than predecessors, this summer’s heat wave more extreme, our recent drought deeper,” the Merced Sun-Star said in an editorial. “Everything about our climate is intensifying.”
The dangers of climate change are exacerbated by unchecked human development in the wildland-urban interface, where dry brush and undeveloped wildland that has evolved to burn exists in close proximity to residential and urbanized areas. As a result, both North and South California have faced devastating firestorms with increasing regularity.
“Climate change is so dangerous because we’ve put billions of people and trillions of dollars of property directly into harm’s way,” journalist and historian Mike Davis told Mother Jones. “What we’re seeing now is the lineage of bad decisions coming around, biting us, and threatening to devour us.”
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in several northern counties, as well as in Orange County in Southern California, where officials said a fire in Anaheim Hills destroyed 15 structures and damaged at least 12.
Investigators are still determining what caused the fires, Berlant said. In some instances, winds might have toppled power poles and sparked flames, he said.