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Death toll reaches at least 23 as wildfires spread to 170,000 acres

Dennis DeVilbiss had made up his mind.

“I’m not leaving,” the former cop and firefighter said Wednesday afternoon as he stood on his front porch in Calistoga, a wine country town under threat from an approaching wildfire. Authorities had ordered its 5,000 residents to evacuate.

He glanced at smoke drifting over nearby trees, and smiled. “I’m not stupid,” said DeVilbiss, 60. “If it’s time to run, I’ll run like hell.”

As the death toll from 16 wildfires raging in Northern California climbed Wednesday, thousands more residents in Calistoga and elsewhere were ordered to flee their homes and firefighters raced against the setting sun to douse smoldering hot spots before devilish winds returned to breathe new life into the blazes.

During searches of destroyed homes, authorities found more bodies, bringing the number of dead to at least 23, fire officials said. The loss of life, along with the estimated 170,000 acres and 3,500 structures already burned, ranked the fires as some of the most destructive in state history.

“We’ve had big fires in the past,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a briefing with state and federal fire officials. “This is one of the biggest.”

Map of NorCal wildfires (Tribune News Service)

With an estimated 50,000 people having left their homes for shelters and hotels, police continued to work to locate several hundred people reported missing by panicked relatives and friends. Authorities said that with communications hobbled by downed cellphone towers and people making hasty escapes, they were hopeful that most, if not all, would turn up safe.

As Brown made formal emergency declarations for eight counties, officials described a massive effort to get a handle on the fires, most of which continued to burn unchecked.

Statewide, 30 air tankers, nearly 75 helicopters and 550 fire engines with several thousand firefighters had already been pressed into action. State officials requested more than 300 additional engines from other states and the federal government.

Through the night and into Wednesday morning, the devastating Atlas Peak and Tubbs fires continued to churn, feeding on tinder-dry vegetation made thicker by the winter’s heavy rainfall.

The Atlas Peak fire, which has menaced the town of Napa since Sunday, nearly doubled in size to 46,000 acres and began to push south, creating a new threat to Fairfield, a San Francisco Bay Area city along Interstate 80.

Police ordered evacuations in the Green Valley area just outside Fairfield and advised residents in other neighborhoods to leave. Three school districts in the region — with a total enrollment of about 81,000 students — shut down for the rest of the week as thick smoke enveloped the area.

“This morning it felt like a war zone; yesterday evening you could stare straight at the sun — it was just this purple circle in the sky,” said Jennifer Leonard, a spokeswoman for the Vacaville Unified School District. “Ash was falling from the sky.”

In Napa, nearly surrounded by the Atlas Peak fire to the north and east and a smaller blaze to the west, the air was choked with smoke. Much of the town was without power or cell service.

And the Tubbs fire, which ignited Sunday night in the hills above Santa Rosa and claimed at least 13 lives when it stormed into the city, reversed its direction and began a push north.

With the fire’s about-face, Calistoga was at risk. At 3:30 a.m., county and town officials there joined police officers in going house to house in one neighborhood, telling people to leave. By afternoon, they decided to clear the entire town.

A dozen police officers from Oakland, called in to assist local police already stretched too thin, strode through the narrow lanes of a trailer park.

Many residents had already fled, but Larry Strakbein, 75, wanted to stay put.

“I’ve been through a lot in my life, including three wives,” he said. “I can handle myself.”

A moment later, three officers showed up at his door. “Sir, you have to leave,” one said.

Strakbein relented and an officer spray-painted a large red check mark on the street in front of his trailer.

It was the anticipated return of the region’s notorious “Diablo” winds Wednesday night that had fire officials most worried.

Commanders dispatched crews of exhausted and sore firefighters to fan out across already-scorched mountainsides near Calistoga and Santa Rosa.

Their job was to find and squelch hot spots laden with embers. With axes and shovels, they chopped at shrubs and turned the soil.

The winds can reignite embers and send them hurtling through the air. If they land in areas not yet burned, there would be little that firefighters could do to stop them from setting off new conflagrations.

“The clock is ticking, so we’re giving it everything we’ve got,” Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said as he sliced through dry grass and stubborn roots with a blade. “This isn’t that sexy. It’s called mop-up, and right now it is critical.”

A few miles away, on a ridgeline just north of Calistoga, a hand crew of 13 firefighters worked on a smoldering slope.

“Every glowing ember is a ticking time bomb,” said Stephen Warren, a Cal Fire apparatus engineer.

The causes of the fires remained unknown, though Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said downed power lines, campfires and machinery are common culprits.

A spokesman for San Francisco-based utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said it is not yet known if the company’s power lines or transformers sparked any of the fires. With at least 40,000 customers without power in the Santa Rosa area, the spokesman said the utility’s priority is restoring electricity.


(Sahagun and St. John reported from Calistoga, and Panzar and Rubin from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Phil Willon, Chris Megerian and Nina Agrawal in Napa and Sonoma counties, and Dakota Smith and Sonali Kohli in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)


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