Death Toll Up To 21 And Entire California Town Evacuated As Wildfires Continue To Rage

On Wednesday morning, cooler, less windy temperatures had the nearly 8,000 firefighters battling blazes in Napa and Sonoma Counties of Northern California feeling optimistic that they might soon be able to contain the wildfires that have ravaged the area since Sunday evening. By Wednesday afternoon, however, that optimism has turned to concern, as the number of fires in the part of the state just northeast of San Francisco jumped from 17 to 22.

According to the latest updates from The Mercury News, the death toll from the fires has now climbed to 21, with about 180 people injured and more than 3,500 homes destroyed. The fires have even gotten so dangerous in the city of Calistoga, California that the entire town has been ordered to evacuate. Residents have been alerted by the Napa County Sheriff’s Office that they need to be out of their homes by 5 p.m., as gusty winds and low moisture are expected to return to the area. Evacuation orders for parts of Sonoma and Napa Counties are coming in on a minute-by-minute basis. If you live in the area or are visiting, you can keep abreast of the latest news on this page, set up by the local NBC station.

Interestingly, an investigative report in The Mercury News is speculating that the fires could be due to downed PG&E power lines. Apparently, there was a flurry of 911 calls Sunday night, as the fires were only beginning, of fallen power lines and exploding electrical transformers. According to The Mercury News, the inadequate maintenance of PG&E power lines has been responsible for many major wildfires in California’s history. PG&E spokesman Matt Nauman called the report “highly speculative” and issued the following statement.

“These destructive winds, along with millions of trees weakened by years of drought and recent renewed vegetation growth from winter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay. In some cases, we have found instances of wires down, broken poles and impacted infrastructure. Where those have occurred, we have reported them to the CPUC and CalFire. Our thoughts are with all those individuals who were impacted by these devastating wildfires.”

California wildfire damage and destruction
A fire inspector looks over the destruction of the California wildfires.[Image by Eric Risberg/AP Images]

For Governor Jerry Brown’s part, he is laying the blame for the fires, which have become some of the deadliest in California history, squarely at the feet of climate change. Governor Brown is, of course, one of the greatest advocates in America for the necessity of the U.S. government to take action on climate change. He is not alone in his belief that climate change bears a large amount of responsibility for the increasing number and intensity of wildfires in the western United States. Bill Patzert, a climatologist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says that high levels of dry brush and grasses, and the long decades of drought, combined with strong, hot winds brought on by high pressure over the Great Basin-Nevada, have primed California for catastrophic fire. He also adds, however, that conditions are worsened greatly due to the proliferation of high-density population developments in what have historically been California’s fire corridors, leading to particularly destructive and quick moving fires.

Unfortunately, the fires aren’t the only problem. The Press Democrat is reporting that, as of this writing, the Santa Rosa police and the Sonoma County Sheriff have arrested five people suspected of looting since the fires began and that 67 calls of reported looting have been made.

As the sun begins to set Wednesday evening and the wind begins to rise, weary firefighters and shell-shocked residents brace for what could be a very long night, with hope for better conditions in the morning.

If you are able and would like to provide money or help to those devastated by the fires, there has been a GoFundMe account set up, or please visit the page for the California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund.

[Featured Image by Jeff Chiu/AP Images]