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California fires: Firefighters gain ground but death toll keeps rising

California firefighters have reported modest gains as they try to tackle 17 wildfires which have transformed the state's wine country into a barren wasteland. The fires are still far from being contained.

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Wildfires tear through California

California's raging wildfires are quickly becoming the deadliest in the state's history. Authorities have confirmed more deaths from the wildfires in the north of the state, bringing the total to at least 35. Hundreds of people remain missing.

Firefighters reported they had made progress in combating the fires and had begun marking containment lines around the perimeter of some of the blazes. 

A home destroyed by wildfire in Orange County

A home destroyed by wildfire in Orange County

Read more: California wildfires leave devastation

"The emergency is not over, and we continue to work at it, but we are seeing some great progress," said the state's emergency operations director, Mark Ghilarducci. Some residents in the path of the fires have been advised to move out as more high winds are on the way.

Fire crews, many of whom had been sent in from other US states, remained "a long way from being out of the woods," said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Downed power lines and other utility equipment are being mentioned by officials as possible causes of wildfires.

Thousands of homes incinerated

Since the fires broke out in northern California on Sunday, as many as 5,700 homes and business have been incinerated. More than 220,000 acres (89,000 hectares) of land have been scorched, an area almost equivalent to the size of New York City. Some of the west coast state's most historic tourist landmarks, including Sonoma city and Calistoga in Napa Valley, have been reduced to mere ghost towns, currently populated only by crews of embattled firefighters.

Some 90,000 people have had to flee their homes due to the wildfires. In addition, the smoke from some 17 different blazes has darkened the California sky for hundreds of miles and caused respiratory problems for inhabitants of the region. 

Governor Jerry Brown and US Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris are scheduled to visit Sonoma County on Saturday. 

A firefighter battles a blaze in California

A firefighter battles a blaze near Calistoga

Search for the missing

Authorities are hoping a significant proportion of the missing people are evacuees who failed to notify officials when they were fleeing their homes.

"We have found bodies almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones," said the sheriff. Some of the deceased could only be identified by the serial numbers stamped to their medical implants, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said on Friday.

 Santa Rosa, California

Santa Rosa, California

Fire officials told reporters that the victims were likely asleep as the fire engulfed their house. Residents in the worst-affected areas had only minutes to escape the fast-moving blaze, which was pushed by winds of over 60 miles per hour (100 kilometers an hour).

Ghilarducci said the loss of cellular communications towers would also have contributed to difficulties in warning residents to evacuate their homes via mobile phone alerts.

Officials were unable to say what the cause of the fire was, but speculated that gale-force winds on Sunday night may have toppled power lines and sparked the conflagration. An investigative team is looking into the possible origin but may not have any answers for a few weeks because much of the evidence has been burned. 

Home of 'Peanuts' creator destroyed

The home of the late Charles Schulz, who created the famous "Peanuts" comics, was destroyed in the blaze, his family revealed Thursday, although his widow managed to escape. 

Schulz's son, Monte Schulz, said that all the memorabilia in the house had been destroyed, although most of the original artwork is kept in the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa.

cmb/jm (AP, Reuters)

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