The death toll in the California wildfires, which continue to rage, has risen to 31. The toll is likely to rise further as scores of people are still missing.
Thousands of people have been rendered homeless as more than 190,000 acres of land has been gutted. This is the worst wildfire California has seen so far.
The deadly blaze began on Sunday, has swept through California’s wine country with the help of gusty winds.
More than 8,000 firefighters continue to battle the blazes.
The National Weather Service said wind gusts of up to 80 kilometers per hour were forecast in some areas and the “critical fire weather conditions” would continue into the weekend.
“What this means is that our fires will continue to burn erratically,” California fire chief Ken Pimlott told a news conference. “They have the potential to shift in any direction at any time. “We are a long way from being done with this catastrophe,” he added.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) announced on Thursday that the fires have claimed 31 lives, while Sheriff Rob Giordano of hard-hit Sonoma County said his department has received around 1,100 reports of missing persons.
Of those, “745 of them, roughly, have been located safe,” while “we still have 400 outstanding,” Giordano said.
Giordano warned that as the fires continue to burn, identifying victims would be difficult.
“Some of these remains are actually intact bodies — much easier to identify, much easier to get things from. Some of them are merely ashes and bones, and we may never get truly confirmative identification on ashes,” he said.
Asked if he expected the death toll to rise, Giordano replied: “I’d be unrealistic if I didn’t.”
As recovery teams fanned out searching for fire victims, evacuation orders were issued for towns in wine-producing Napa and Sonoma counties, where hundreds of people have already lost their homes to the fast-moving infernos.
Entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa have been reduced to ashes, and evacuation orders were issued for additional parts of the devastated city of 175,000 people in Sonoma County.
Cal Fire also warned that strong winds could spark new fires.
“These winds will continue to challenge firefighters in their efforts towards containment and will increase the risk for new fires,” Cal Fire said.
David Shew, a veteran firefighter with Cal Fire, said the wildfires were like nothing he’s seen before.
“I’ve been with Cal Fire for 30 years and I’ve seen big fires,” he told AFP. “But this is extraordinary, having that many and that large and going so fast.”
Thousands of people have been left homeless and 25,000 people have evacuated their homes in Sonoma County alone, according to officials.
More than 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed, including several wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties, the heart of the state’s extensive wine production.
President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in California, freeing up federal funding and resources to help fight the fires, and Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in eight counties.
Forest fires are common in the western United States during the summer but this year’s blazes in California are the deadliest in the series of fires to hit the state.
The Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles County in 1933 killed at least 29 people, and 25 people died in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.
(With inputs from agencies)