Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Sonoma — Firefighters struggled overnight to halt the spread of wildfires known to have killed 23 people in northern California, preparing for winds to shift after one town threatened by flames evacuated all residents.

The edge of the deadly Tubbs fire was less than 3km from Calistoga, a Napa Valley community whose 5,000 residents left their homes on Wednesday.

Whether the town burns "is going to depend on the wind", fire chief Steve Campbell said on Thursday. "High winds are predicted, but we have not received them yet."

Tubbs is one of nearly two dozen fires spanning eight counties that have raged largely unchecked since igniting on Sunday, leaving hundreds of residents unaccounted for.

They have charred about 69,000ha of land and destroyed about 3,500 buildings.

While their cause has not been conclusively determined, they are thought to have been sparked by power lines toppled by gale force winds and fanned by hot, dry Diablo winds blowing into northern California towards the Pacific.

New advisory evacuations were issued in Sonoma County late on Wednesday for parts of Santa Rosa — the largest city in the state’s world-renowned wine country — and Geyserville, an unincorporated town of 800 people.

"The winds are predicted to be very erratic," said county spokesman Barry Dugan. "There will be bursts of high gusts that can be ... very unpredictable and difficult when you are fighting a fire and also for residents who we are trying to keep posted."

Wildfires had damaged or demolished at least 13 Napa Valley wineries, a vintners’ trade group said on Tuesday.

About 25,000 people remained under evacuation on Wednesday as smoke drifted to the San Francisco Bay area.

Missing people

More than 285 people were still missing in Sonoma County late on Wednesday night, the sheriff said on Twitter. It was unclear how many may be fire victims rather than evacuees who had not checked in with authorities.

In Santa Rosa, blocks in some areas resembled war zones, with little left but charred debris and burned-out cars.

The 23 recorded deaths make the fires the deadliest in the state since 1991, with Tubbs, which has accounted for 13 fatalities, the worst single blaze since 2003, according to state data.


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