California fires’ death toll rises

Fire consumes a barn as an out of control wildfire moves through Glen Ellen in California. Photo: AFP

More than 150 people are still missing as wildfires that killed more than a dozen people have ravaged northern California's wine region.

At least 17 people have been confirmed dead and more than 2000 buildings have been destroyed by the fires which broke out on Sunday.

Gusts of up to 80km/h and 10 percent humidity are forecast for later on Wednesday and into Thursday for the region, where a dozen fires have forced 20,000 people to flee their homes, fire officials said.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesperson Lynne Tolmachoff said there was a potential for new fires that could grow exponentially in a short time, as these had.

California fire chief Ken Pimlott said on Tuesday more than 17 fires had burned about 46,500ha in 24 hours.

Eleven of the deaths have been in Sonoma County.

One of the worst-affected towns there is Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, where entire districts have been destroyed.

The Sonoma County sheriff's office said 155 people were still unaccounted for, although that could be due to the chaotic pace of the evacuations.

In neighbouring Napa County, victims included 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his 98-year-old wife, Sarah, police said.

The fires are among the deadliest in California's history and have sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 100km away.

He said his officers were trying to track down those unaccounted for but he feared the death toll could rise.

"We're very hopeful that they're just staying with family or friends or left town to get away and we just haven't been able to make that contact," he said.

"But these fires move so quickly - there are just hundreds and thousands of acres out there that we haven't had a chance to pour through and adjudicate."

There was some good news when winds that had been fanning the flames eased, helping firefighters to bring some of the blazes under control.

In Santa Rosa, a Hilton hotel and a mobile home park were destroyed. Tens of thousands of Sonoma County residents have fled, authorities said.

At least four wineries had suffered "total or very significant losses", Napa Valley Vintners said, with nine others reporting some damage to buildings or vineyards.

More than 91,000 homes and businesses are without power.

California Governor Jerry Brown declared states of emergency in Sonoma, Napa and five other counties.

US President Donald Trump has also approved a disaster declaration, allowing federal emergency aid to be disbursed.

-BBC/RNZ


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