Massive wildfires continued to ravage Northern California on Wednesday when windy and dry conditions returned to the region and created what a top fire official called “a serious, critical catastrophic event.”
Firefighters battled 22 major fires in California that burned 170,000 acres, led to the deaths of at least 23 people and destroyed thousands of structures as of the midafternoon. Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said that there are still 285 missing persons in his county alone.
Those fires included the large Tubbs Fire in Napa County that burned at least 28,000 acres, according to Cal Fire. The deadly Atlas Fire in Napa County blackened more than 42,000 acres and also spread to Solano County.
The Atlas Fire is 3 percent contained, while there is no containment estimate for the Tubbs Fire.
“We’re not out of the woods and we’re not going to be out of the woods for a number of days,” Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said during an afternoon news conference in Sacramento.
Pimlott said there are 22 major wildfires burning in California. Officials are now concerned that some fires may merge together in the North Bay.
The weather conditions that sparked the fires Sunday night returned Wednesday, with low humidity and high winds in areas with critically dry fuel.
“We are literally looking at explosive vegetation,” Pimlott said. “Make no mistake, this is a serious, critical catastrophic event.”
Pimlott said the fires “are burning faster than firefighters can run… It’s very difficult to get any kind of containment.”
— Michael Barba (@mdbarba) October 11, 2017
Authorities issued a mandatory evacuation for entire city of Calistoga as of 3 p.m. as the Tubbs Fire approached the town. Officials had already issued a partial evacuation order for Calistoga in the early morning hours.
With the California Highway Patrol blocking roads and turning away residents, few remained in the small town by late afternoon except for Ambuj Singh.
Singh is the manager at the Fast and Easy Mart gasoline station on Lincoln Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, where the CHP set up a roadblock.
“If there’s a police officer close to me, that means… I’m safe here,” Singh said.
Residents were urged to head to the American Canyon High School near Vallejo. Singh said he drove his wife and two kids to Benicia before coming back to Calistoga to open up shop.
— Michael Barba (@mdbarba) October 11, 2017
In the afternoon, state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, surveyed the damage on Westgate Drive where an elderly couple died in the Atlas Fire.
Dodd, who lives in the neighborhood, told the San Francisco Examiner that the wildfire spared his home when it flames overtook the mountainside on Sunday night. But many of his neighbors were less fortunate.
“They were gorgeous, beautiful homes,” Dodd said. “Landscape, and now it looks like moonscape. It’s unbelievable how these families, all of their memories, everything they’ve ever lived for is just totally, completely gone.”
On Tuesday, local authorities confirmed the deaths of Charles Rippey, 100, and his 98-year-old wife Sara Rippey who were unable to escape from their home on Westgate Drive.
“They were just a beautiful couple,” said Dodd, who knew the Rippeys. “The guy was such a stud, his wife was not able to make it and he was not going to leave without her.”
More than 100 aircraft and 500 engines as well as nearly 8,000 firefighters worked the blazes Wednesday in California. Crews working the 8,000-acre Canyon Two Fire in Orange County were also being redeployed to Northern California since the incident is being contained.
California has also requested resources from Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Nevada. There are roughly 60 additional hand crews and 155 engines coming to California’s aid.
“We have access to every available asset in the country,” Pimlott said.
The California National Guard has already deployed 700 soldiers and airmen, as well as firefighting aircraft and two unmanned drones, which are monitoring the fires from the air.
The California National Guard is also planning to deploy an additional 1,800 personnel, including the 49th Military Police Brigade.
The state highway patrol has 112 personnel, mainly in the Santa Rosa area, to deal with possible looters and provide general law enforcement services.
There are an estimated 4,400 displaced people who were housed at shelters Wednesday, according to the state Office of Emergency Services, which has distributed more than 44,000 meals and 60,000 liters of water.
Gov. Jerry Brown called the fires in the state “profoundly serious” at the news conference in Sacramento.
“That’s the way it is with a warming climate, dry weather and reducing moisture,” Brown said. “These kinds of catastrophes have happened and they will continue to happen.”
Bay City News Service contributed to this report.