California’s wildfires have claimed the lives of 34 people as more than 250 are still missing in what is now the worst spate of fires to ravage the state since 1933.
In the heart of the US state’s wine country, 25,000 residents who fled their homes and businesses in mass evacuations five days ago are returning to sift through the ashes and set up make-shift camps at local sports grounds.
As of Friday (local time) more than 17 wildfires continue to burn across eight counties with warnings the death toll could climb higher.
One of greatest immediate threats to population centres continued to be in the Napa Valley town of Calistoga, whose 5000-plus residents were ordered from their homes on Wednesday night (local time) 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 on Thursday: “You are on your own.”
In what is being described as California’s most lethal bushfire event in 84 years, as of Friday (local time) at least 5700 homes and businesses have been incinerated and 90,000 hectares scorched.
Despite extreme winds forecast on Wednesday night and into Thursday failing to materialise with emergency services beginning to gain some ground, California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told reporters in Sacramento on Thursday that fire crews remained “a long way from being out of the woods”.
Mark Ghilarducci, state director of emergency services, added that: “We are not even close to being out of this emergency.”
Whole neighbourhoods in the city of Santa Rosa have been reduced to grey ash and smouldering ruins dotted with charred trees and burned-out cars.
The official cause of the disaster is under investigation, but officials say power lines toppled by gale-force winds on Sunday night may have sparked the fires.
Thirty-four people, all civilians, were confirmed dead in four counties, tying the record for California’s most lethal wildfire, the 1933 Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles where 29 people lost their lives.
— with AAP