California wildfires: At least 31 dead, hundreds still missing as firefighters gain ground

California wildfires: At least 31 dead, hundreds still missing as firefighters gain ground

California wildfires: At least 31 dead, hundreds still missing as firefighters gain ground

Updated 13 October 2017, 14:40 AEDT

Firefighters begin to gain ground against wildfires that have killed at least 31 people in Northern California and left hundreds missing in the chaos of mass evacuations.

Firefighters have begun to gain ground against wildfires that have killed at least 31 people in Northern California and left hundreds missing in the chaos of mass evacuations.

Key points

  • Death toll rises to 31
  • 20 fires still burning across eight Californian counties
  • More than 400 people missing in one county alone

The death toll marked the greatest loss of life from a single California wildfire event in recorded state history, two more than the 29 people killed by the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

With 3,500 homes and businesses incinerated, the fires have scorched more than 77,000 hectares — an area nearly the size of New York City — reducing whole neighbourhoods in the city of Santa Rosa to grey ash and smouldering ruins.

The official cause of the disaster was under investigation, but officials said power lines toppled by gale-force winds on Sunday night (local time) may have sparked the blazes.

A resurgence of extreme wind conditions that had been forecast for later in the week failed to materialise, giving fire crews a chance to start carving containment lines around the perimeter of some of the fires.

But fierce winds were expected to return across much of the state as early as Friday night (local time), and a force of 8,000 firefighters in Northern California were racing to reinforce and extend buffer lines before then, officials said.

"We are not even close to being out of this emergency," Mark Ghilarducci, state director of emergency services, said.

Bodies are 'just ash and bone'

Fire officials said some victims from the latest fires were asleep when flames engulfed their homes.

Others had only minutes to escape as winds of nearly 100 kilometres per hour fanned fast-moving blazes.

Mr Ghilarducci said the loss of mobile phone towers likely contributed to difficulties in warning residents by mobile phone alerts.

"We have found bodies that were completely intact, and we have found bodies that were no more than ash and bone," the county's Sherriff Rob Giordano said.

He added that recovery teams would begin searching ruins with cadaver dogs.

Authorities had warned the death toll from the spate of more than 20 fires raging across eight counties could climb higher.

As many as 900 missing persons reports had been filed in Sonoma County, although 437 have since turned up safe, Sheriff Giordano said.

It remained unclear how many of the 463 still listed as unaccounted for are actual fire victims rather than evacuees who failed to alert authorities after fleeing their homes, he said.

"The best we can pray for is that they haven't checked in," emergency operations spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque said.

Sonoma County accounted for 15 of the North Bay fatalities, all from the so-called Tubbs fire, which now ranks as the deadliest single California wildfire since 2003, according to state data.

Warning to those remaining: 'You are on your own'

One of greatest immediate threats to population centres continued to be in the Napa Valley town of Calistoga, where more than 5,000 residents were ordered from their homes as winds picked up and fire crept closer.

Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said anyone refusing to heed the mandatory evacuation would be left to fend for themselves if fire approached, warning people: "You are on your own."

About 25,000 people remained displaced as the fires belched smoke that drifted over the San Francisco Bay area, about 50 miles to the south, where visibility was shrouded in haze and cars were coated with ash.

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

Whether the town burns "is going to depend on the wind," Calistoga's Fire Chief Steve Campbell said.

"High winds are predicted but we have not received them yet."

Reuters