SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) – Firefighters battling wildfires in California’s wine country faced the prospect of new outbreaks on Wednesday when dry, windy conditions return to an area where blazes have killed at least 17 people and destroyed 2,000 homes and businesses.
Gusts of up to 50 miles per hour (80 kph) and 10 percent humidity are forecast for later on Wednesday and into Thursday for the region, where 17 fires have forced 20,000 people to flee their homes in one of the deadliest wildfire outbreaks in California history, fire officials said.
“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.
The weather had given firefighters a reprieve on Tuesday as cooler temperatures, lower winds and coastal fog let them make headway against the fires that had burned 115,000 acres.
New evacuation orders were posted overnight across Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.
Some 155 people were missing in Sonoma County, although 45 others had been found and some of those unaccounted for may be due to confusion surrounding evacuations.
The city of Santa Rosa was particularly hard hit by the so-called Tubbs fire, which damaged a Hilton hotel and destroyed a mobile home park, among other damage. At least 11 people have been killed by that fire alone, officials said. It is the deadliest California wildfire since 2003, when the Cedar fire killed 15 people in San Diego, and the sixth deadliest since records began, according to state records.
Irene Fonzeca and her husband, Luis, spent their second night in a shelter on Tuesday after waking up the day before to the sound of fiery trees crashing down and flames being blown toward their home.
“We have no idea what’s there or if there’s anything to go back to,” Irene Fonzeca said outside the shelter holding a breathing mask as smoke and light ash blanketed downtown Santa Rosa.
In the shelter, emotions were raw, she said. “People are crying, hugging, helping each other. It’s devastating.”
In Napa County, the dead included 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his wife, Sarah, 98, according to the county sheriff’s office. The couple were married for 75 years, a CBS affiliate in San Francisco reported, citing their son, Mike.
Charles Rippey’s body was found outside where his wife’s bedroom once stood, he said. “He was trying to get from his room to her room,” Mike Rippey said. “He never made it.”
Napa Valley Vintners, a trade group, said it was too early to assess the economic impact on Northern California’s celebrated wine country. At least four wineries suffered “total or very significant losses” and at least nine reported damage, the group said.
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in several northern counties, as well as in Orange County in Southern California, where a fire destroyed 15 structures and damaged 12, the Anaheim Fire and Rescue Department said.
Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Keith Coffman in Denver, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Bill Trott