After slackening earlier in the week, the dry, nearly hurricane-force winds that have been fanning the flames in Northern California picked up again overnight, revitalizing what some are already describing as the most devastating wildfires in the state’s modern history.
As of Thursday morning, 23 people have been confirmed dead in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Yuba counties. Another 200 are missing. Fires have swallowed more than 3,500 homes and businesses over more than 170,000 acres. And the state’s emergency shelters are rapidly approaching their limits as more than 25,000 people have fled with more than 4,000 staying in the shelters, according to the Washington Post.
The death toll is expected to rise significantly as officers reenter the “hot zones” that were totally destroyed by the fires.
“We can’t even get into most of the areas,” Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said. “When we start doing searches, I expect that number to go up.”
Though the official cause of the fires has yet to be determined, California utility PG&E has acknowledged that the extreme winds late Sunday and early Monday had knocked trees into power lines, potentially causing dry foliage and grass to ignite.
Destroyed residential neighborhood in Santa Rosa.
“The historic wind event that swept across PG&E’s service area late Sunday and early Monday packed hurricane-strength winds in excess of 75 mph in some cases,” said Ari Vanrenen, a PG&E spokeswoman, in a statement released after the San Jose Mercury News first revealed a possible link between the wildfires and downed power lines.
“These destructive winds, along with millions of trees weakened by years of drought and recent renewed vegetation growth from winter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay,” she said.
Since Sunday, at least 22 separate wildfires have broken out across the region.
In a chilling hint at the potential human toll, 600 people were reported missing, though the sheriff’s office said Wednesday night that 315 have been located safe. Another 285 are still reported missing, but many may have lost cellphones or Internet access, or otherwise been unable to communicate with relatives.
More than 8,000 firefighters are working to contain the fires, which are primarily in Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties. In Sonoma County alone, more than a half-dozen separate wildfires have erupted since Sunday. The city of Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma, has been particularly hard hit.
The fires have overwhelmed attempts by state firefighters to contain them, and are now burning mostly uncontrolled. State officials have warned that some of the big fires could merge – the total number of fires has fallen from 14 to eight - even as new blazes erupted, and thousands of people have been told to prepare to leave their homes, if they haven’t already. Evacuations continue, including one order covering the entire city of Calistoga in Napa County. In neighboring Sonoma County, residents in Geyserville were urged to leave Wednesday evening. Two hours later, another evacuation order was issued in the Sonoma Valley.
“This is a serious, critical, catastrophic event,” Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said.
At least 14 wineries have burned, potentially crippling the state’s iconic wine industry.
However, wine isn’t the only “growth industry” that’s been devastated by the wildfires. Marijuana farms in the state’s “Emerald Triangle” in Mendocino Country have burned, possibly constraining supplies just before legal sales are set to begin in January 2018. And what’s worse, because marijuana-focused businesses often don’t have access to financial services like banking and insurance, the owners could be on the hook for losses, accoding to CNN.
"Nobody right now has insurance," said Nikki Lastreto, secretary of the Mendocino Cannabis Industry Association.
Stories of people fleeing in a blind panic after spotting flames on the horizon – or worse, unsuspecting elderly victims who didn’t detect the fire until it was too late for them to run – have proliferated have caused many to wonder how the fire took so many people in Sonoma and Napa counties by surprise?
Well, in a disturbing report, the San Francisco Chronicle reveals that Sonoma County authorities decided against sending a mass alert to cell phones Sunday evening warning about the wildfires.
As fires that would prove devastating burned across the North Bay late Sunday, Sonoma County considered sending a mass alert to cell phones in the region to warn of the rapidly spreading flames. But county officials decided against it, worried that doing so might create widespread panic and hinder the ability of first responders to combat the blazes.
It’s unclear how much that decision might have affected area residents’ responses to the deadly wildfires, particularly since many cell phone towers were destroyed in the blaze, making such messages undeliverable. But it adds to concerns that some in the fires’ paths were not alerted about the danger, leaving them little time to flee.
After just four days, the cost of the fires will strain the budgets of both state and federal agencies. This year alone, the US Forest Service has spent a record-breaking $2.4 billion to suppress more than 50,000 fires. The Forest
Service’s previous record was $1.7 billion in 2015. Over the last twenty years, the amount the Forest Service has allocated to fight wildfires has tripled from 16% of the overall budget to 52%. The agency estimates that by 2025, that number will increase to 67%.
Meanwhile, the fires are just one of 22 disasters that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is managing across the nation. FEMA says more than 85% of its 9,900 full-time employees are working “in the field” right now.