How did Northern California fires become so devastating?

Cal Fire  CBS News

Cal Fire CBS News

In Mendocino - a coastal county famed for its pristine beaches and redwoods - the fire "was random and cruel", said Alison de Grassi, a longtime resident who said she had never seen anything like it.

"It's not going to be anywhere what we saw", said Brian Garcia, a meteorologist with the weather service.

The ash rained down on the Sonoma Valley, covering windshields, as winds began picking up toward the potentially disastrous forecast speed of 30 miles per hour (48 kph).

It was unclear how numerous missing might be fire victims rather than evacuees who merely failed to check in with authorities. But it seems clear that the greenery the state welcomed in the spring after so many years of drought has played a big role. Jerry Brown said at a news conference Wednesday, alongside the state's top emergency officials.

"The winds that fanned these fires Sunday night and Monday morning have decreased significantly, but local winds and dry conditions continue to pose a challenge", Cal Fire said. On Wednesday, the ridges were obscured by the growing clouds of smoke. For now, they are hoping to make it through the fire safely.

The sheriff said there have been 11 confirmed fire-related deaths in the county, a number he expects to increase when emergency crews are finally able to search the hundreds of homes that have been reduced to ashes in Santa Rosa and outlying areas.

Grabow's name was among dozens written on a dry erase board at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa, which the Red Cross had turned into an evacuation center with dormitories, cold showers and three meals a day.

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Alejandro Rodriguez had been evacuated from one tiny Sonoma Valley town, only to have deputies come to the neighborhood to where he had relocated and tell residents there to pack up and go.

"It's insane how in just a few hours a place I've recognized all my life I can't recognize", he said at a roadside food stop in the town of Sonoma. "They won't tell us nothing".

In the hills above Santa Rosa, resident Peter Lang was forced to choose between saving his home or more than 1,000 animals that were trapped at his Safari West wildlife preserve, the Press Democrat newspaper reported. But officials believe many of those people will be found. Chaotic evacuations and poor communications over the past few days have made locating friends and family hard.

Helicopters and air tankers were assisting thousands of firefighters trying to beat back the flames. "The devastation is enormous", he said. "Here we have interpretation of official comments provided by a woman who can read sign language for the deaf relayed to people whose hearing is okay", Howard wrote. Until now, the efforts have focused on "life safety" rather than extinguishing the blazes, partly because the flames were shifting with winds and targeting new communities without warning.

Only a handful of the blazes are classed as "contained".

If it turns out that PG&E is responsible for this fire and negligent for not putting in the resources or for diverting the resources, then I will be the first one to stand up and say we need to dissolve PG&E as a private company and form a public utility.

"I've heard stories of people being relocated to San Francisco and Oakland".

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