Fire officials in Northern California have reported further headway against the most lethal outbreak of wildfires in the state’s history, as the death toll rose to 35 and teams with cadaver dogs combed charred ruins for human remains.
The wind-driven blazes, which erupted on Sunday night in the heart of California’s renowned wine country, north of San Francisco, have destroyed an estimated 5700 homes and businesses and forced the evacuation of at least 25,000 people.
With more than 200 people still missing on Friday in Sonoma County alone, and rubble from thousands of incinerated dwellings yet to be searched, authorities have said the number fatalities from the so-called North Bay fires would likely climb higher.
Even as firefighters gained more ground during a second day of better weather, they braced for a return of higher temperatures, lower humidity and strong, gusty winds that could increase the threat to communities still in harm’s way.
Ground crews raced to clear drought-parched vegetation along the southern flanks of fires, removing highly combustible fuels adjacent to populated areas before extreme heat and winds were forecast to revive over the weekend.
“We’ve challenged the troops to get out there and secure mainly the south parts of these fires in preparation for those strong north winds,” Bret Gouvea, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told a news conference.
As of Friday afternoon, 17 major wildfires – some encompassing several smaller blazes merged together – had consumed nearly 222,000 acres of dry brush, grasslands and trees across eight counties.
Governor Jerry Brown planned to visit the area with California’s two US senators on Saturday.
Officials have said power lines toppled by gale-force winds the first night may have sparked the conflagration, though the official cause remained under investigation.
Much of the devastation centred in and around the Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa, where whole neighbourhoods were reduced to landscapes of grey ash, smouldering debris and burned-out vehicles.
Some victims were asleep when flames engulfed their homes, and many survivors had only minutes to flee.
The picturesque town of Calistoga, at the northern end of Napa Valley, faced one of the biggest remaining hazards. Its 5000-plus residents were ordered from their homes on Wednesday night as a fierce blaze dubbed the Tubbs fire crept to within 3km of city limits.
The 35 confirmed fatalities – 19 in Sonoma County – mark the greatest loss of life from a single fire event on record in California, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said his office had investigated nearly 1500 missing-persons reports stemming from the fires, and all but 235 had since turned up safe as of Friday evening.
Still, Giordano said 45 search-and-rescue teams and 18 detectives had been deployed to scour obliterated neighbourhoods for more victims.
At a fairground converted to a shelter in the nearby city of Petaluma, about 250 cots were full by Friday, and people slept in tents in the parking lot as volunteers served porridge and eggs for breakfast.
Yasmin Gonzalez, 28, her four children and husband, a grape picker, were anxious to leave the shelter and return to their apartment in Sonoma.
“It’s horrible to leave your home, and your things and not know what’s going to happen,” Gonzalez said.
The year’s wildfire season is one of the worst in history in the United States, with nearly 8.6 million acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
In the worst year, 2015, about 9.3 million acres burned.