WASHINGTON – Wildfires ravaging Northern California have killed at least 21 people and destroyed more than 3,500 homes and businesses, including several wineries, authorities said Wednesday afternoon.
Twenty-two fast-moving wildfires in eight counties have scorched nearly 180 square miles since Sunday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). The largest fire has burned more than 42,000 acres, Cal Fire said. Some fires have been contained but others are still burning out of control. Some entire neighborhoods have been reduced to ash.
“We’re just trying to keep people alive,” Capt. Mike Palacio of the California Highway Patrol said in a news conference on Wednesday.
Hurricane-force winds that had calmed on Tuesday kicked up again on Wednesday.
Sheriff Rob Giordano of Sonoma County said Wednesday that about 670 people have been reported missing in his county alone. But some of the missing people could have safely evacuated, he noted. The fires have destroyed some cellphone towers, making communication difficult. About 20,000 people have evacuated, officials said. More than 4,400 people are in shelters, authorities said Wednesday afternoon.
Looting has been reported in some areas, with some looters allegedly impersonating police officers and telling people to evacuate their homes. The Santa Rosa Police Department said it is actively patrolling and responding to calls of looting.
The deceased victims include a couple who had been married for 75 years. Mike Rippey told the New York Times that his parents, 100-year-old Charles Rippey and 98-year-old Sara Rippey, were trapped in their Napa County house late Sunday night when the roof caved in and their caregiver could not rescue them in time. Rippey said his parents met in elementary school and had been together ever since. He said they probably would have wanted to perish together rather than be widowed.