Martha Marquez is overcome as she looks at her burned home in Santa Rosa, California
Santa Rosa (United States) (AFP) - The death toll from some of California’s worst ever wildfires rose to 17 as thousands of firefighters battled Wednesday to bring the infernos under control.
The fires which have devastated California’s wine country are already among the deadliest ever in the western US state and officials warned they expect the toll to go up.
Sonoma County, where 11 deaths have been reported, has been among the hardest hit with entire neighborhoods reduced to ashes in the city of Santa Rosa, the county seat of 175,000 people.
Around 200 people have been reported missing in Sonoma County but the county sheriff’s department said it expected that most of them would eventually be located.
Thousands of people have been left homeless, according to the authorities, and 25,000 people have evacuated their homes in Sonoma County alone to escape the fast-moving fires.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said Wednesday that firefighters were battling 22 wildfires that have burned nearly 170,000 acres (68,800 hectares).
A firefighter watches smoke billowing from a blaze in Sonoma County, California
“We are facing some pretty significant monsters,” The Los Angeles Times quoted Bret Couvea, a Cal Fire incident commander, as saying at a strategy briefing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds early Wednesday.
More than 2,000 homes and businesses have been destroyed including several wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties, the heart of the wine region.
Aside from the 11 deaths in Sonoma County, three fatalities have been reported in Mendocino County, two in Napa County and one in Yuba County.
President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in California, freeing up federal funding and resources to help fight the fires, and Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in eight counties.
- Wind could pick up -
Strong winds which fueled the fires on Sunday and Monday died down on Tuesday and officials said they hoped the winds would remain light for Wednesday.
Burned wine barrels at the Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa, California
“Let’s hope for no wind and progress,” the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department tweeted.
Firefighters at the Sonoma strategy briefing were told that winds were forecast to be around five miles per hour (eight kilometers per hour) during the daytime, the Los Angeles Times said.
They were expected to pick up to 15 mph (24 kph) in the afternoon and be between 25-30 mph (40-48 kph) overnight.
Much of the damage in Santa Rosa could be seen from US Route 101, the north-south highway which runs from California through Oregon to Washington state.
“The homes are gone, they are like dust,” said Jack Dixon, a personal trainer who has lived in Santa Rosa for two decades. “It is just like we were nuked.”
Dixon told AFP that his own neighborhood was spared when the fire “miraculously” changed direction but many others were not so fortunate.
“I am surrounded by devastation and feel lucky it didn’t happen to me,” Dixon said.
- Blackened walls -
A destroyed car in Carneros, California
The Sonoma County Hilton perched on a hill overlooking Route 101 was a smoldering ruin of charred wood and twisted metal, as was the nearby Fountaingrove Inn.
An enormous K-Mart store was entirely destroyed with only a couple of blackened walls still standing.
Among the wineries which reportedly suffered damage were William Hill Estate Winery in Napa, Signorello Vineyards, Stags’ Leap and Chimney Rock.
Forest fires are common in the western United States during dry, hot summer months but, with 17 deaths so far, this year’s California fires are among the deadliest ever in the state.
The Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles County in 1933 killed at least 29 people and 25 people died in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.