SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) – Wildfires tearing through California wine country flared up again Wednesday, destroying hundreds more homes and other buildings and leading to new evacuation orders as authorities raised the death toll to 21 and warned that the number would rise.
At least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed since the wildfires started Sunday, making them the third deadliest and most destructive blazes in state history.
Nearly three days after the flames ignited in Northern California, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes, which were growing in number. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said 22 wildfires were burning, up from 17 on Tuesday.
Flames have raced across the wine-growing region and the scenic coastal area of Mendocino farther north, leaving little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. Whole neighborhoods are gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark sites that were once family homes.
Authorities ordered more evacuations for parts of Sonoma Valley after a blaze grew to 44 square miles (113 square kilometers). Officials also cautioned that after a day of cooler weather and calmer winds, dangerous gusts would return Wednesday.
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said the number of missing-persons reports surpassed 600, up from about 200 a day earlier. But officials believe many of those people will be found, saying that the chaotic evacuations and poor communications over the past few days have made locating friends and family difficult.
He also expects the death toll to climb.
“The devastation is enormous,” he said. “We can’t even get into most areas.”
Officials in Napa County say almost half the population of Calistoga was ordered to evacuate before sunrise. Officials went through the town of 5,000 people block by block, knocking on doors to warn people to leave, Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said.
New evacuation orders were also in place for Green Valley in Solano County.
Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said high winds and low humidity fueled the fires and similar conditions were expected to return.
“Yesterday was a very aggressive day for fire behavior with some rapid expansion for fires,” he said at a news conference. “We are expecting some extreme fire behavior” on Wednesday.
In Southern California, cooler weather and moist ocean air helped firefighters gain ground against a wildfire that has scorched more than a dozen square miles.
Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi said the blaze was nearly halfway surrounded and full containment was expected by Saturday, but another round of gusty winds and low humidity levels could arrive late Thursday.
Gecker reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez, Juliet Williams and Andrew Dalton in San Francisco contributed to this report.