Drone images from fire-ravaged California
Video provided by AFP

Thousands of firefighters battling two dozen deadly, destructive fires in Northern California faced another round of rapidly deteriorating conditions Thursday 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.

At least 23 people have died and about 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed in the lethal 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 including the Bay Area 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.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said hundreds of people were still reported missing, although officials believe many of those people — 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. Many people were rousted from bed at 3 a.m. as evacuation orders went out.  

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 cell phones to warn of the impendinmg fire, 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