SANTA ROSA (California) • Fast-moving wildfires raging across Northern California's wine county have killed 17 people, left more than a 150 missing and destroyed 2,000 homes, wineries and other structures, state fire officials said.
The flames from 17 blazes have blackened over 46,500 ha since fires broke out last Sunday amid hot, dry conditions and high winds.
At least 20,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, as schools closed and at least two hospitals in Sonoma County were temporarily shuttered.
Gusts of up to 80km per hour and 10 per cent humidity were forecast for later yesterday and today. "The potential for new fires that could grow exponentially as these fires did in such a short time is there," Ms Lynne Tolmachoff, spokesman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said.
Firefighters said the weather gave them a reprieve on Tuesday as cooler temperatures, lower winds and coastal fog let them make headway against the fires, but they cautioned that homes, wineries and other structures remained at risk.
Some 155 people were still missing in Sonoma County, although 45 others had been found.
North of San Francisco, the fires reduced houses to ashes in several communities. 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.
Napa Valley Vintners, a trade group with 550 members, said it was too early to estimate the economic impact of the fires. At least four wineries had suffered "total or very significant losses", and at least nine reported damage to their winery, outbuildings or surrounding vineyards, the group said.
More than 91,000 homes and businesses served by Pacific Gas & Electric were without power, with most of those customers in Northern California's Sonoma and Napa counties, and gas was shut off to 28,000 customers, representatives for the utility company said.
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and five other counties. Meanwhile, in Southern California, the so-called Canyon Fire 2 spread to 3,035 ha in Orange County, destroying 14 structures and damaging 22, fire spokesman Thanh Nguyen said.
The blaze triggered the evacuation of 5,000 people in the communities of Anaheim Hills and Orange Hills as it spread through grass and oak trees, he said, and was only 25 per cent contained as of Tuesday afternoon.