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Fire officials expect conditions to worsen near North Bay fires

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A man bikes across Mendocino O/C with his daughter as a large plume of black smoke is seen in the distance in Santa Rosa, Calif. Monday, October 9, 2017 as multiple fires break out across Sonoma, Napa and other North Bay counties. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Napa and Sonoma county officials braced for windy and dry conditions Wednesday as more than 17 large fires continued to burn in California.

“The wind’s going to pick up this afternoon, there’s a lot of concern of where the fire will go,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said at a 9:30 a.m. news conference on the blazes raging in the county, which have claimed at least 11 lives.

SEE RELATED: At least 15 dead in Northern California fires, Trump pledges federal support

Giordano emphasized that firefighters remain focused on helping residents evacuate, and communication has been difficult. Seventy-three cell towers remained down in the state, he said.

“We are not switching operations to anything but life saving right now. It’s all about life saving,” Giordano said.

SEE RELATED: At least 21 dead, 170K acres burned in 22 major California fires

Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said at a separate news conference in Napa County on Wednesday morning that weather conditions Tuesday presented challenges for firefighters battling blazes there.

“Yesterday was a very aggressive day for fire behavior with some rapid expansion of fires,” Biermann said. “We have a lot of wind on our incidents which pushed fire in numerous directions. We’re expected to go back into red flag warning [today].”

He continued, “We are expecting some extreme fire behavior and growth of our incidents currently and that is going to lead to challenges.”

A Red Flag Warning, during which gusty winds and low humidity create conditions that are just right for the rapid spread of wildfires, goes into effect at 5 p.m. for the North Bay mountains, according to the National Weather Service.

The Nuns Fire, which started north of Glen Ellen in Sonoma County and burned into Napa County overnight, is now at 7,626 acres and just 2 percent containment. The Partrick Fire, west of Napa, is at 9,523 acres and 2 percent containment.

Napa County’s largest blaze, the Atlas Fire, is at 42,349 acres and 3 percent containment. It has also burned into Solano County.

The Tubbs Fire near Calistoga has burned roughly 28,000 acres, prompting the evacuation of roughly 2,000 of the city’s estimated 5,000 residents, according to Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon.

“A plan was put into place and between 3 and 6 this morning a number of us walked block by block and knocked on doors,” Dillon said.

“Many people were packed up and ready to go. They were anticipating this,” she added. “People knew they were possibly in danger.”

“We are anxiously awaiting what the winds will do,” Dillon said.

Firefighting resources are inbound from other states and crews hope to increase their control over fire perimeters in the coming hours and days. At this point, at least two people have died in Napa County, leaving fire and police officials primarily focused on saving lives.

At least 44 individuals have been rescued throughout the North Bay by the California Highway Patrol’s Air Operations division, as well as five dogs and a cat.

There haven’t been any CHP air rescues in the past 24 hours, according to Sgt. Jim Andrews. That resource remains available though to residents in need of emergency evacuation.

“If you see the helicopter overhead and we’re orbiting you, it’s because we probably think you need our help,” Andrews said.

CHP Cmdr. Chris Childs asked that residents who may have to evacuate prepare in advance.

“If you’re told to evacuate, please remember to take any medications, please scoop up any pets, so we don’t have to tie up critical resources to go back in,” Childs said.

He also asked residents to heed road closures, regardless of whether there’s a law enforcement officer there giving instructions.

“I know it’s a tough message to be told you’re not able to go back to your homes, but I would ask for your patience,” Childs said.

So far there’s no official estimate for the number of people displaced by the fire, according to Napa County Supervisor Belia Ramos.

“We’re simply not in a position to assess the number of evacuees,” Ramos said.

Area residents who’ve been displaced by one of the wildfires currently devastating Napa County and elsewhere throughout Northern California but are alive and well are asked to register on www.safeandwell.org or check in with friends and family on social media.

Meanwhile, around 670 people are still missing in unincorporated Sonoma County, and those who have evacuated won’t be able to return until next week, the county’s sheriff said Wednesday morning.

“The missing person count is up to 670, and we found 110 people located safely,” Giordano said in a briefing at the sheriff’s office.

“I expect the located number to go up today,” Giordano said. “We hope to find a big chunk of them through phone calls.”

Cellphone service has been spotty, he said, hampering efforts to locate people. A team of more than 30 people is searching for people via data search, Giordano said.

“They’re not going through the rubble. They do data searches,” he said.

The situation in the area is still serious, and “it’s all about life-saving now,” the sheriff said.

“We have 11 confirmed dead right now,” Giordano said.

The sheriff’s office is working on identifying the dead and notifying their families, he said.

“Our No. 1 priority is identification and family members,” before releasing the names publicly, he said.

People who still are in areas where evacuation is advised but not mandatory should leave if they can, he said.

“My advice is go, if you have a place to go,” Giordano said. “The less people we have to evacuate, the better off we’ll be.”

hose who evacuate should go south, he said, adding, “Don’t go to Napa.”

Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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