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Drone images from fire-ravaged California
Video provided by AFP
Newslook

CALISTOGA, Calif. — The death toll from Northern California’s relentless wildfires struck 31 Thursday, the deadliest week of wildfires in state history.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said Thursday night that two more people have been confirmed dead there. That raises the statewide death total from 29 to 31.

Thousands of firefighters are battling two dozen deadly, destructive fires throughout the usually picturesque and tranquil Northern California wine region. On Thursday, they faced another round of rapidly deteriorating conditions, with a forecast of low humidity and winds gusts of up to 45 mph — with no hint of rain.

And the conditions were not expected to improve. Forecasters warn that the winds, including a new round expected late Friday into Sunday, may not only hamper the efforts of firefighters but also increase the risk of new hot spots.

Among those who died were two people died in Yuba County, Sheriff Steven Durfor told reporters Thursday afternoon.

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About 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed in the wildfires that broke out mainly north of San Francisco on Sunday. 

Red Flag Warnings, forecasting dangerous fire conditions, were already in effect for much of Northern California and have been extended from Big Sur to the Santa Cruz mountains.

Gov. Jerry Brown has issued emergency declarations for Napa, Sonoma, and Yuba Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada, Orange and Solano counties.

“We have had big fires in the past,” Brown said at a news conference, alongside the state’s top emergency officials. “This is one of the biggest, most serious, and it’s not over.”

State fire chief Ken Pimlott was equally blunt: “It’s going to continue to get worse before it gets better.”

The biggest blaze, called the Tubbs Fire, grew overnight in Napa County by 6,000 acres to 34,270 acres. It was only 10% contained on Thursday.

Chaotic evacuations and poor communications over the past few days have made locating friends and family difficult.

Giordano said hundreds of people were still reported missing, although officials believe many of those — almost 400 — will be found.

The sheriff also expects the death toll to climb. “The devastation is enormous,” he said. “We can’t even get into most areas.”

About 8,000 fire personnel have been battling the blaze with little rest while help pours in from Arizona, Nevada, Washington and Oregon. Authorities said more help was being sent from Pennsylvania, Canada and Australia.

Authorities have thrown vast resources at the fire, including more than 70 helicopters, 30 air tankers and 550 firetrucks.

“We are at very low containment on most of these,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services. “These fires are literally burning faster than firefighters can run.”

Several communities ordered last-minute evacuations ahead of the fast-moving fires, including the historic resort town of Calistoga, population 5,300, famous for its wine tastings and hot springs.

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The few people who remained in Calistoga overnight awoke to smoky skies and a light ashfall, but no actual fire in the town.

Authorities ordered the town evacuated as of 5 p.m. Wednesday, and the town remained empty Thursday morning, except for a heavy law enforcement presence that included about 30 Oakland Police Department motorcycle officers on security duty. 

October is prime tourist season here in Calistoga, but businesses, restaurants and winery tasting rooms all remain shuttered.

In Boyes Hot Springs, in Sonoma County, authorities ordered residents to clear out on Wednesday. As ash rained down from the advancing fires, cars jammed the roads already clogged with emergency vehicles hurrying toward the flames, sirens blaring.

In the early hours after the fire broke out, Sonoma County fire and emergency officials discussed sending out an Amber Alert style message to cellphones but decided against it because the message would have gone to thousands of people not in immediate danger, SFGate.com reports.

The worry was that sending a widespread could have made it difficult for first responders to fight the fire and help those in need, officials decided.

The roaring fires, driven by winds from the north, have also generated heavy smoke over San Francisco, prompting sponsors to cancel a weekend half-marathon race because of concerns about air quality.

Contributing: Associated Press