Firefighters battling deadly blazes in Northern California face a daunting new challenge Wednesday: Winds are expected to pick back up, threatening to spread wildfires that already have killed 17 people, destroyed hundreds of buildings and forced thousands of evacuations.
Most of the fires were ignited Sunday, driven by winds of up to 79 mph and dry conditions. The winds died down early this week, but gusts around 40 mph are possible Wednesday, and no rain is forecast.
"Anytime you get a wind gust over double digits, like 12 or 13 mph, that's when embers can fly," CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said. "Hot spots ... will be fanned by the (winds) today."
More than 20,000 people had been ordered to evacuate as of Tuesday night, and authorities were encouraging others to pack "ready-to-go bags" with documents and medicines in case they had to flee the fast-spreading flames on a moment's notice.
"I think it would be one of the worst disasters in California history," California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Palacio said Tuesday at a community meeting. "You gotta be patient. We are just trying to keep people alive."
Families are frantically searching for those who have been reported missing. Authorities believe communications issues are preventing many of those people from checking in with relatives.
But one family's search for a loved one in Santa Rosa ended tragically.
Christina Hanson, 28, who used a wheelchair and lived in an apartment next to her father's house, was reported missing after the fire. Hanson had called her father's ex-wife to say she saw flames, but no one had heard from her after that, her family said.
After a day of panic and uncertainty, Hanson's cousin confirmed she had died in the fire.
'It looked like we were at war'
The biggest blaze, the Tubbs fire, has reduced cars and homes into burnt piles of ash and rubble in Santa Rosa, a city of about 175,000 roughly 50 miles northwest of San Francisco.
That fire has burned 28,000 acres and destroyed at least 571 structures, Cal Fire said Tuesday, making it one of the top 15 most destructive fires recorded in California history.
A large part of Santa Rosa was evacuated, including the Kaiser Permanente Hospital and Sutter Hospital, where patients emerged from the facilities with protective masks, some using walkers or wheelchairs.
The only thing that remained of Margaret Curzon's house was a concrete statue of the Virgin Mary. She said her parents lost almost everything when the wildfire destroyed their home in the Coffey Park neighborhood.
Her mom woke up early Monday and smelled smoke but thought it was the neighbor's barbecue or chimney, so she went back to sleep. They woke up again because their bichon frise, Brady, was whimpering.
Curzon's father looked outside, and his first thought was there had been some sort of bomb, or an attack.
"It looked like we were at war," Curzon said. "The sky was orange, and there were embers falling from the sky."
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