Northern California wine country fires: 23 dead, hundreds missing, 3,500 structures burned

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Wildfires tearing through NorCal's wine country flared up again Wednesday, destroying hundreds more structures and leading to new evacuation orders as authorities raised the death toll to 23. (KABC)

Wildfires tearing through Northern California's wine country flared up again Wednesday, destroying hundreds more structures and leading to new evacuation orders as authorities raised the death toll to 23.

Officials confirmed the death toll Monday night, and crews are working to find at least 285 people who have been reported missing in Sonoma County.

There were originally 600 reports of missing people, but officials said that 315 were located safely. The numbers had been inconsistent as authorities tried to get confirmation.

Approximately 3,000 structures have been destroyed statewide, including homes and businesses and several wineries.

MORE: Dramatic video shows what it's like to drive through California wildfires
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A video shared by the Sonoma Sheriff's Office shows the dramatic conditions responders face when driving through the wildfires.

Nearly three days after the flames ignited in Northern California, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes, which were growing in number. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said 22 wildfires were burning, up from 17 on Tuesday.

A wind advisory has been issued with gusts of more than 50 mph expected later Wednesday in the North Bay. The winds could down trees, trigger more power outages and pick up embers.

Evacuations have expanded for the wildfires for parts of Sonoma Valley after a blaze grew to 44 square miles. New evacuation orders were also in place for Green Valley in Solano County.

PHOTOS: Deadly fires burn in Napa, Calistoga areas

"The devastation is enormous," said Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano. "We can't even get into most areas."
More than 240 members of the California National Guard helped ferry fuel to first responders because so many gas stations were without power. Guard members were also helping with medical evacuations and security at evacuation centers, said Maj. Gen. David Baldwin.
VIDEO: Napa County officials give update on wildfires
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Napa County officials give a Tuesday morning update on the deadly wildfires burning in the North Bay.

In addition to knocking out electricity, the blazes damaged or destroyed at least 77 cellular sites, disrupting communication services that officials were rushing to restore, said Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci.

Among the victims were 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his wife, Sara, who was 98. The couple was married for 75 years and lived at the Silverado Resort in Napa. "The only thing worse would have been if one survived without the other," their granddaughter, Ruby Gibney said.

A thick, smoky haze cloaked much of Napa and Sonoma counties, where neighborhoods hit by the fires were completely leveled. Authorities warned residents not to return to their houses for safety reasons, citing the risk of exposed electrical and gas lines and unstable structures including trees.

But many found it hard to stay away.

In Calistoga, the streets were dark and abandoned -- except for the countless law enforcement officers who were on patrol.

Earlier, authorities went door to door to encourage people to evacuate.

"I can text out but I can't call out, and they can't call me, so I have no way of getting a hold of them," said Calistoga resident Stephanie Marquardt, who was trying to get in touch with loved ones as she evacuated.

IMPORTANT: If you know someone who was missing but no longer is please call the Sonoma County Emergency Operations Center at 707-565-3856

In the Santa Rosa suburb known as Coffey Park, Robyn Pellegrini let out a cry of grief as she approached the smoldering ruins of the duplex she shared with her husband and their 6-year-old son. Daniel Pellegrini held his wife before they went searching for something they could salvage for their child.

With bare hands, they sifted through the remains of the exterior wall, which had collapsed into dust inside the house and covered all the other debris in their boy's room. They found a stuffed animal - charred but still recognizable as a turtle. Robyn Pellegrini let out joyful gasps when they found pieces of his rock collection.

A young boy across the street, whose home was spared, brought over one of his own stuffed animals to share.

"You lose all your photos," said Tony Pellegrini, Daniel's father. "You feel like you lost a part of your life."

In Washington, President Donald Trump said he spoke with Gov. Jerry Brown to "let him know that the federal government will stand with the people of California. And we will be there for you in this time of terrible tragedy and need."

The government declared a disaster, which should give the state help putting out the flames.

More than 400 miles away from the wine-making region, flames imperiled parts of Orange County. Thousands of people were displaced by a wildfire that destroyed or damaged 15 structures, including homes. Hot, dry Santa Ana winds swept fire along brushy outskirts of Orange County suburbs and equestrian properties.

PHOTOS: Canyon 2 Fire destroys homes, prompts evacuations in Orange County

The blaze, which disrupted major commuter routes, spread over nearly a dozen square miles in less than 24 hours as a squadron of helicopters and airplanes bombarded it with water and retardant.

Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi said full containment was expected by Saturday.

It was unusual for so many fires to take off at the same time. Other than the windy conditions that helped drive them all, there was no known connection between the blazes, and authorities have not cited a cause for any of them.

IMPORTANT: If you are in need of resources, shelter, or assistance please click here

KGO-TV and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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firenapa countybrush firefirefightersevacuationsonoma countywildfireNorth Bay FiresNorthern California
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