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Catastrophic wildfires rage in California as death toll rises

Fast-moving fires engulfing Northern California have left behind a trail of destruction. Authorities have issued a state of emergency as flames consume houses, businesses and infrastructure throughout the state.

California firefighters are facing a worsening situation as winds are expected to pick up to around 50 mph (80 km/h), spreading what has been called one of the worst fires in the state's history. The number of fires increased from 17 to 22 Wednesday and the number of confirmed dead has increased to 21. Some 170,000 acres (690 square kilometers) have been consumed by the fire, as well as more than 3,500 homes. Firefighters described the situation as "very active on several fronts."

Watch video 01:46

Wildfires tear through California

Unknown number of missing

The largest fires are burning in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties in the heart of California's wine region. On Monday, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the area. Large-scale evacuations are currently under way and the number of missing is unknown.

In Sonoma county alone, 670 people are unaccounted for. As of Tuesday, some 20,000 residents had been evacuated from their homes. Authorities have set up a registry for missing persons and encouraged residents to sign in once they were safe. Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said that many missing residents had been found, though they had not logged onto the registry site.

'Catastrophic'

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Chief Ken Pimlott called the Northern California wildfires, "a serious, critical and catastrophic event." Tens of thousands of residents have also been left without power as a result of fires destroying infrastructure. Smoke and ash from the fires has been so intense in neighboring San Francisco that residents there have been told to stay indoors and to wear breathing masks if possible. No rain is forecast for the area for the next week.

As firefighters attempt to contain the Northern California blazes, their colleagues in Southern California announced that more than 1,600 firefighters in Orange County had contained roughly 40 percent of the brushfires burning there. Authorities say they hope to have those fires completely contained by Saturday.

Plea for federal assistance

California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris yesterday called on US President Donald Trump and Congress to provide federal assistance to their ravaged state, saying damage exceeded that which it could bear alone. On Monday, Vice-President Mike Pence, who was fundraising for Republican congressional candidates in California, left his prepared remarks to say that "the federal government stands ready to provide any and all assistance to the state of California as your courageous firefighters and first responders confront this widening challenge."    

js/bk (AP, Reuters)

 

 

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