Death toll rises to 23 in NorCal wildfires; hundreds still missing

5 things you need to know now

5 things you need to know now

Police blocked off many roads and prevented people from going into the destroyed neighborhoods, where some people said they no longer could recognize streets and surroundings.

Thousands of firefighters battled wind gusts in excess of 80 kilometres per hour as 14 wildfires - several out of control - in eight northern California counties burned through more than 23,000 hectares since the weekend, CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

Latest maps from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) show more than two dozen wildfires burning uncontrolled across the state.

"These are all fires that were in areas that are populated, and 95% of the fires in our state are started by people" in some way, he said, downplaying the chances that lightning may have played a role.

High-speed winds have played a role in the fires. He also said deputies have stopped escorting people into evacuation areas to retrieve medications. "But because there is fire on the ground, because there are areas still smoldering, because there are still embers unattended, this wind could feed" additional fires, "sending those embers out in the fuels to kick up again".

"We are still impacted by five years of drought". The North Bay is under a critical fire alert, the agency says.

The smoke may linger for days, underscoring the need for people to stay indoors as much as possible and avoid strenuous exercise in smoky areas, air regulators cautioned.

"The spread of the fire and predictions on the wind and seeing what we've seen had happen throughout our neighboring communities, obviously want to absolutely err on the side of caution here", he said.

Those words proved prescient as the death total rose to 21 known casualties Wednesday morning, a figure Pimlott described as "fluid" due to the number of missing or unaccounted for persons in a region savaged by a series of fires that sparked around the same time Sunday night.

Officials say they have yet to contain a single major fire.

Speaking to NPR's David Greene, Cox said, "Late season fires are always hard, because you're contending with very dry fuel moistures. These fires came down into neighborhoods before anybody realized the fires were occurring in many cases".

But there hasn't been much rain during the summer, causing numerous plants to wilt and dry out.

The dead vegetation "has accumulated and increases the likelihood of unusually large wildland fires", according to Cal Fire.

The fires torched 20,000 acres in about 12 hours Monday alone, meaning they advanced at a rate of more than a football field every three seconds.

Wildfires already well on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history could gain momentum Thursday and erase even the modest gains firefighters have made.

So far, the fires have been thriving on low humidity and dry conditions. Speaking October 11, Pimlott warned that, before the day was over, he feared simultaneous conflagrations to the west, east and north of the Napa Valley could merge into one super-fire.

At least two of the fires have each burned more than 25,000 acres, propelled by strong winds Sunday night.

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