California fires: Searchers seek hundreds missing

SONOMA COUNTY, Calif.  — In some areas in Sonoma County, the wildfires that have ravaged tens of thousands of acres died down enough Wednesday for the sheriff’s department to check on more than 600 missing persons reports by visiting burned-out neighborhoods.

In many other cases, detectives used telephones to track down people who are unaccounted for.

Still, 285 people remain missing in just one county, people who authorities pray are still alive but have no way to contact police or their loved ones.

But there is some dread that the death toll — 29 in the region — from the Northern California wildfires will rise as more areas cool down and searchers discover what’s left.

“I’m optimistic that we will get a lot of people connected,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said. “At the same time we have to be realistic and start searching for the ones we found are missing.”

Firefighters battling 22 blazes were challenged Wednesday by blustery conditions and shifting winds.

Gusts had died down early this week, but on Wednesday they blew between 20 and 40 mph and conditions were still extremely dry, with low humidity and no rain. Thursday’s forecast is for similar conditions.

More than 20,000 people had been ordered to evacuate as of Wednesday, 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.

Giordano had a suggestion for people who’d been advised to be prepared to leave: Go anyway.

“Traffic is bad in the county. If we have to evacuate people, it’d be better to have you (already) out of the area. If you have a place to go, go,” he said.

“We are very concerned about all the fire lines, because of the wind they’re anticipating.”

Wildfires have burned nearly 170,000 acres throughout the state.

The largest fires were in Northern California’s Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, filling the picturesque landscape of the state’s wine country with charred rubble and clouds of smoke.

Of the 29 people who have died since Sunday night, 13 were killed in the Tubbs wildfire in Sonoma County, officials said.

That makes the Tubbs fire, one of 22 blazes burning in the state, the fifth-deadliest fire in recorded California history, according to the Cal Fire website.

The director of Cal Fire, Ken Pimlott, expects the number of homes and businesses that have been destroyed to rise significantly from 3,500.

Officials said Wednesday that almost 8,000 firefighters are involved in trying to contain the blazes.

The equipment being used includes 550 fire trucks — at least 170 of which came from out of state — 73 helicopters and more than 30 planes.