CALISTOGA, Calif. — The ferocious fires in California Wine Country and beyond gobbled up new territory on multiple fronts Wednesday, threatening communities untouched by the previous onslaught — including the entire town of Calistoga and part of Fairfield — and prompting the evacuation of thousands more people.
Fires raked across the state, but the primary battlefields were in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties, where wind gusts topping 30 mph were giving out-of-control fires new life.
Even as the depth of the disaster was revealed — the death toll grew to 21 — the high winds returned to ravaged Northern California, where thousands of firefighters from across California and Nevada scrambled to save lives and property.
State fire officials said at least 22 wildfires were burning Wednesday across the state and had blackened 170,000 acres while destroying up to 3,500 homes and businesses, a huge number of them on the north edge of Santa Rosa.
Eleven of the 21 people confirmed dead in the state were found in Sonoma County, along with six in Mendocino County, two in Napa County and two in Yuba County. But the chaotic situation has made it difficult for investigators to take full stock of the devastation wrought since Sunday night when high winds pushed flames and turned neighborhoods, restaurants, hotels and wineries into ash.
At a Sacramento news conference, Gov. Jerry Brown said the fires were among the worst in California history. He said affected communities should prepare for a long rebuilding process.
"We've had big fires in the past. This is one of the biggest, most serious,'' Brown said. "It's not over. … We have people living in communities and cities and very developed situations that are close to forests and brush that becomes kindling.''
The spreading flames were an immense challenge for teams of exhausted firefighters from around the state and Nevada, many of whom spent up to 40 hours on the fire lines without sleep. The return of dreaded Diablo winds, notorious for spreading flames, means the battle is just beginning, authorities said.
The fight to save the North Bay from further devastation has been both harrowing and exceedingly difficult as 8,000 firefighters attempt to anticipate where the fires will go and outflank them.
"Make no mistake, this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event,'' said Ken Pimlott, the chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. "These fires aren't just in the backwoods. These fires are burning in and around and through developed communities.''
He said protecting "box stores, buildings, hotels, all of it, these are the kinds of challenges'' firefighters are facing.
Dozens of helicopters and tanker planes, including a converted Boeing 747 jet, dumped retardant on the fires, including three major ones in the North Bay.
The causes of the fires have not been determined, but there were reports that strong winds had knocked down numerous power lines between 9:20 p.m. and 10 p.m. Sunday, about the time the fires broke out in Napa and Sonoma counties.
``We are investigating a number of potential causes, including whether reports of power lines falling down and electrical transformers exploding Sunday night may have caused some of the wildfires in the region,'' said Janet Upton, deputy director of Cal Fire.
The most damaging fire, the Tubbs Fire, carved a path of destruction from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, leaped over U.S. 101 and killed at least 11 people. By Wednesday, it had burned 42,000 acres and was only 3 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.
The Atlas Fire northeast of the city of Napa consumed 26,000 acres and was only 3 percent contained, while the Nuns Fire near Kenwood burned 5,000 acres and was 1 percent contained.
"We are at very low containment on most of these,'' said Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. "These fires are literally burning faster than firefighters can run.''
The California Highway Patrol reported rescues of 44 people, five dogs and two cats as flames approached on Tuesday. On Wednesday, many new communities were under mandatory evacuation orders: Calistoga; the Bennett Valley and Annadel Heights neighborhoods on the east edge of Santa Rosa; parts of Geyserville north of Healdsburg; and the Green Valley area in Solano County.
In addition, residents of many other communities — including parts of Fairfield and Boyes Hot Springs — were told by officials to pack bags and prepare to evacuate due to the unpredictable nature of the fires.
The Yountville Veterans Home in Napa County voluntarily evacuated its skilled nursing facility, which houses the most frail residents, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The home houses about 1,000 disabled veterans from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Pimlott said that in Solano County, law enforcement officers and firefighters went door-to-door overnight, pulling people out of their homes as the front of the Atlas Fire moved over a ridge bordering Napa County.
The North Bay blazes are considered "complex fires'' to account for the fingers, spot fires and scattered flames in the region that may not be connected to the main body. Pimlott said he expects "several of these fires will merge.''
Fire officials launched a full-scale siege Wednesday against the fires, with 73 helicopters, 30 air tankers, including the converted 747, and 550 fire engines rumbling above and around the fires.
Cal Fire requested 60 additional hand crews, planes and other firefighting equipment from any state that can lend a hand to exhausted firefighters, who have stretched the available resources to the maximum.
Some of the tankers were unable to fly Tuesday because thick smoke was lingering over the fire areas, blocking the view of the pilots, but that wasn't a problem Wednesday, Pimlott said.
Even so, he said, the first priority, as it has been since the fires began Sunday, is saving lives and property. He urged people under evacuation orders to get out and stay out.
"The potential continues to exist for peril if people don't get out of the way of these fires,'' Pimlott said. "These are going to be unpredictable fires in the next couple of days.''
The search for missing people continued. In Sonoma County alone, 380 people are still missing.
Sheriff Rob Giordano said his deputies are trying their hardest, but the logistics of finding people are difficult with spotty cell phone service, terrible traffic and flames lingering in areas where most of the missing people are supposed to be.
"We can only get so many places and we only have a certain number of people to get places,'' Giordano said. "The devastation is enormous. We can't even get in most of those areas.''
Returning home is out of the question at least until Monday for evacuees, he said.
"If you are in an evacuation zone, you cannot go home,'' said Giordano, who lamented how many people in fire zones "underestimate how powerful and dangerous it can be.''
David Baldwin, the adjutant general of the California National Guard, said 1,800 soldiers and airmen have joined the 330 law enforcement personnel working the fire.
About 4,400 evacuees took shelter in dozens of emergency centers around the North Bay.
Ghilarducci said 64 of the 77 downed cellular tower sites have been restored, but about 50,000 people are still without power. He said a massive multiagency effort is under way to fix telecommunications and infrastructure.
"It's all hands on deck for this particular situation,'' Ghilarducci said. "We will continue this pace, we will continue to support this until this situation is mitigated.''
Water systems in some areas remain compromised, officials said, prompting advisories for residents to boil tap water used for cooking or drinking.