Dazed Californians brace for more ‘extreme fire behavior’ as death toll rises to 31

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images(SANTA ROSA, Calif.) -- Firefighters are facing dry and windy conditions as they battle California’s deadliest wildfires that authorities say have killed at least 31 people, left hundreds missing and devastated entire neighborhoods in California.

Intensified by strong winds and low humidity, the 17 wildfires as of today have charred more than 221,754 acres of land, forced more than 20,000 residents to evacuate and damaged or destroyed at least 3,500 homes and other structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The decreased number of blazes from 21 Thursday reflects the merging of several fires while three have been completely contained.

Santa Rosa, a city in Sonoma County known for its wineries, was among the hardest hit areas, with at least 2,834 homes destroyed. Critical infrastructure was also lost in the flames, including the city's fire station, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

The cause of the fires is still under investigation.

More than half the deaths from the fires occurred in Sonoma County alone, authorities said. Taken together, the death toll exceeds the number of fatalities in the 1933 Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles, the deadliest wildfire in California's history, killing 29.

Authorities said an alert system put in place gave residents ample time to evacuate and likely prevented many deaths.

"We have a subscription service where we can alert our residents, and we did that right away, trying to notify everybody where the fire was, where it was going and how fast it was going, and I think it saved a lot of lives," Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Crum told ABC News in an interview Tuesday.

About 400 people, most of whom are elderly, were unaccounted for in Sonoma County as of Thursday night, according to the sheriff's office. Out of about 1,100 missing person reports that have been filed since the fires began, about 745 people have been safely located. The sheriff's office said some of the reports may be duplicates.

With mandatory evacuation orders and road closures still underway, many residents in the affected areas have been warned not to return to their homes until further notice.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared states of emergency for Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties in Northern California.

"Life is more important than property," Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said at a news conference Tuesday.

Another round of gusty winds and dry air

While overall containment of the flames has increased, a large weather system moving into the region today will bring another round of gusty winds and low humidity to the state over the weekend. Gusts could reach up to 60 mph in some areas late tonight into Saturday, while daytime humidity could be as low as 10 percent.

The combination of strong winds, dry air and warm temperatures will create "critical fire weather conditions" and "contribute to extreme fire behavior," the National Weather Service warned.

Red flag warnings for gusty winds and low humidity remain in effect across the fire areas and much of northern California. The conditions will challenge the more than 8,000 firefighters working to snuff the flames and prevent new wildfires from igniting.

With firefighters stretched thin throughout the state, hundreds of additional fire engines and personnel have been requested from other states to help relieve crews on the front lines and be prepared for the possibility of more blazes, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Most of the flames ignited on the night of Oct. 8 or during the early morning hours of Oct. 9.

Here's a roundup of the largest fires still threatening California:

Central LNU Complex fires

The so-called Tubbs, Pocket, Nuns/Adobe/Norbbom, Pressley fires are considered branches of one giant inferno — collectively known as the Central LNU Complex — in Napa and Sonoma counties. Nearly 34,000 structures are threatened, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Altogether, the four fires have destroyed 1,063 structures and damaged 48 others.

  • Tubbs fire: 4,770 acres burned in Napa County; 25 percent contained as of Friday morning; at least 571 structures destroyed; responsible for a majority of the fire-related deaths this week.
  • Pocket fire: 9,996 acres burned in Sonoma County; 5 percent contained as of Friday morning.
  • Nuns/Adobe/Norbbom fires: 44,381 acres burned in Sonoma County; 5 percent contained as of Friday morning.
  • Pressley fire: 473 acres burned in Sonoma County; 10 percent contained as of Friday morning.


Southern LNU Complex fires

The Atlas and Patrick fires make up another huge blaze, known as the Southern LNU Complex, in Napa and Solano counties that collectively threatens 5,000 structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Altogether, the two fires have destroyed 181 structures and damaged 27 others.

  • Atlas fire: 8,228 acres burned in Napa and Solano counties; 27 percent contained as of Friday morning; at least 125 structures destroyed.
  • Patrick fire: 12,379 acres burned in Napa County; 18 percent contained as of Friday morning.


Mendocino Lake Complex fires

The Redwood/Potter fires and the Sulphur fire make up a giant blaze, known as the Mendocino Lake Complex, in Lake and Mendocino counties that collectively threatens 1,000 structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Altogether, the two fires have destroyed 369 structures and damaged another 43.

  • Redwood/Potter fires: 34,000 acres burned in Mendocino County; 10 percent contained as of Thursday night.
  • Sulphur fire: 2,500 acres burned in Lake County; 55 percent contained as of Thursday night.


Wind Complex fires

The Cascade, La Porte, Lobo and McCourtney fires make up one huge blaze in Butte, Nevada and Yuba counties, collectively known as the Wind Complex, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Altogether, the four fires have destroyed 366 structures and damaged 13 others.

  • Cascade fire: 10,120 acres burned in Yuba County; 55 percent contained as of Friday morning.
  • La Porte fire: 6,139 acres burned in Butte County; 45 percent contained as of Friday morning.
  • Lobo fire: 821 acres burned in Nevada County; 65 percent contained as of Friday morning.
  • McCourtney fire: 76 acres burned in Nevada County; 95 percent contained as of Friday morning.


Other major fires

  • Canyon 2 fire: 9,217 acres burned in Southern California's Orange County; 65 percent contained as of Friday morning.
  • Cherokee fire: 8,417 acres burned in Butte County; 70 percent contained as of Friday morning.

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