California fires: Hundreds still missing

  • 14/10/2017

Firefighters are facing more dry, windy conditions that could whip up wildfires in northern California that have killed at least 31 people and left hundreds missing.

The toll from the more than 20 fires raging across eight counties in the heart of wine country could climb, with more than 400 people in Sonoma County alone still listed as missing.

Winds of up to 100km/h and humidity of just 10 percent will create "critical fire weather conditions" and "contribute to extreme fire behaviour" on Friday afternoon and into Saturday, the National Weather Service says.

A force of 8000 firefighters is working to reinforce and extend buffer lines across the region where the flames have scorched more than 77,000 hectares, an area nearly the size of New York City.

With 3500 homes and businesses incinerated, the so-called North Bay fires have reduced entire neighbourhoods in the city of Santa Rosa to smouldering ruins dotted with charred trees and burned-out cars.

The cause was under investigation, but officials said power lines toppled by gale-force winds on Sunday may be to blame.

The Napa Valley town of Calistoga faced one of the biggest threats, and its 5000-plus residents were ordered to leave their homes as winds picked up and fire crept closer.

Sonoma County accounted for 17 of the North Bay fatalities, all from the Tubbs fire, which now ranks as California's deadliest single wildfire since 2003.

Some people killed were asleep when flames engulfed their homes, fire officials said. Others had only minutes to escape as winds fanned fast-moving blazes.

As many as 900 missing-person reports have been filed in Sonoma County and 437 people have since turned up safe. It remains unclear how many of the 463 still unaccounted for are fire victims rather than evacuees who failed to alert authorities.

From the Vatican, Pope Francis issued a statement expressing his "heartfelt solidarity" with all those affected.

"He is especially mindful of those who mourn the loss of their loved ones and who fear for the lives of those still missing," the statement said.

The fires struck the heart of California's world-renowned wine-producing region, wreaking havoc on its tourist industry and damaging or destroying at least 13 Napa Valley wineries.

The state's newly legalised marijuana industry was also hit hard, with at least 20 pot farms in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties ravaged, a growers' association said.