(TNS)— Thousands of firefighters battled through another tense night on the fire lines across Northern California, officials said early Thursday, and increasing winds prompted authorities to evacuate entire towns as flames descended.
The massive Atlas Peak fire in Napa and Solano counties grew to 43,000 acres, burning the eastern hills surrounding Napa, Napa County spokeswoman Nikki Lundeen said Thursday morning. The Tubbs fire, which burned much of Santa Rosa and prompted Napa County officials to evacuate the entire town of Calistoga, reached about 35,000 acres, she said. The Patrick fire has burned around 9,500 acres, and the Nuns fire has consumed about 8,400 acres.
The dry, wind-whipped conditions that sparked one of the worst firestorms in California history returned to a lesser degree Wednesday night and were expected to continue through at least Thursday morning.
With winds picking up, it was an anxious night and early morning for area residents as the army of firefighters worked to keep the flames away from communities. Red-flag fire warnings were in place through Thursday afternoon.
The winds can reignite embers and send them hurtling through the air. If they land in areas not yet burned, there would be little that firefighters could do to stop them from setting off new conflagrations, officials said.
"Every glowing ember is a ticking time bomb," said Stephen Warren, a Cal Fire apparatus engineer.
In addition to Calistoga, residents of Geyserville, in Sonoma County, were ordered to leave their homes Wednesday night.
Sonoma County also ordered Rio Lindo Adventist Academy, a boarding school on the outskirts of Healdsburg near the edge of the Tubbs fire, to prepare to evacuate if necessary.
The school is "up a very long, narrow, two-lane road," said Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Brandon Jones "Logistically it's a nightmare to evacuate."
The death toll from the fires rose to 23 late Wednesday, and Sonoma County officials have received 600 reports of missing people. Of those, 315 have been found safe.
Authorities said that with communications hobbled by downed cellphone towers and people making hasty escapes, they were hopeful that most, if not all, of the others would turn up safe.
The fires have consumed an estimated 160,000 acres and 3,500 structures.
"We've had big fires in the past," Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday at a briefing with state and federal fire officials. "This is one of the biggest."
Statewide, 30 air tankers, nearly 75 helicopters and 550 fire engines with several thousand firefighters have already been pressed into service. State officials have requested more than 300 additional engines from other states and the federal government.
Napa city officials issued evacuation advisories for neighborhoods along the eastern edges of the city, warning residents to be prepared to leave. Just before 9 p.m. Wednesday, Santa Rosa police also issued an evacuation advisory for neighborhoods in the city's eastern end, while other neighborhoods along the north end of the city are under mandatory evacuation orders.
Not everyone was listening.
"I'm not leaving," said Calistoga resident Dennis DeVilbiss, a former police officer and firefighter.
"Why should I?" the 60-year-old said, standing on the wooden front porch of his cul-de-sac home on the south end of the resort town as smoke wafted over nearby forests. "I'm in a good spot. I'm monitoring all the radio bands. I just put a sprinkler on my roof. Oh, and I've got goggles, heavy gloves and a respirator."
He paused, and added with a smile, "I'm not stupid. If it's time to run, I'll run like hell."
(Times reporters Alene Tchekmedyian and Chris Megerian contributed to this story.)
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