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Evacuations Expand In Wine Country Wildfires; Gusty Winds Pick Up

SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) -- The death toll rose to 23 in the devastating wildfires in Northern California wine country and surrounding communities, as officials feared that even larger conflagrations might be formed by merging fires.

New evacuations were ordered Wednesday afternoon amid a return of gusty winds and red flag conditions, stoking fires that are already among the worst in the state's history.

In Mendocino County, mandatory evacuations were ordered for the Potter Valley where two fires, the Redwood and Potter fires, have already merged.

In Napa County, a mandatory evacuation alert was issued for the City of Calistoga. Solano County authorities urged residents of Fairfield's Eastridge Development to evacuate, and encouraged residents of the Rancho Solano development to pack a bag of essentials and be prepared to move.

In Sonoma County, mandatory evacuations were in effect in Geyserville, from Highway 128 east to River Rock Casino, and south on 128 to Geysers Road up to Cal Pine. An advisory evacuation was also issued for most of Boyes Hot Springs.

The Solano County Sheriff's Office issued an evacuation advisory for a rural area west of Vacaville, telling residents on the west side of Pleasants Valley Road between Highway 128 and Mix Canyon road to prepare a "go bag."

In a chilling warning earlier Wednesday, the head of Cal Fire said he anticipated that at least the two major fires ablaze in the Napa Valley will merge into a single massive fire.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott told reporters the wildfires were a "critical, serious, catastrophic event" and then he issued the warning.

"We are concerned and anticipate that before the day is over several of these fires will merge into one fire," he said. "If you look at the Napa Valley, we have fire on the ridge line to the east of town and to the west of town. And to the north. So a great deal of fire across all these landscapes."

"Please pay close attention to evacuation orders," he begged local residents. "It's very dynamic. These fires are changing by the minute."

Major Northern California Wildfires (Source: Cal Fire)
Last updated 9:15 p.m. PT

Cherokee Fire - 8,400 acres, 45% contained - Off Cherokee Road and Zonalea Lane, Oroville
La Porte Fire - 3,700 acres, 15% contained - La Porte Rd. and Oro Bangor Hwy, Bangor

Sulphur Fire - 2,500 acres, 45% contained - Off Hwy 20, Sulphur Bank Road, Clearlake Oaks

Redwood/Potter Fires - 30,000 acres, 5% contained - N of Hwy 20, W of Mendocino Nat'l Forest

Partick Fire = 9,500 acres, 2% contained - Off Patrick Road, W of Napa
Tubbs Fire - 28,000 acres, 10% contained - Off Hwy 128 and Bennett Ln, Calistoga

Atlas Fire - 42,000 acres, 3% contained - Off Atlas Peak Rd, south of Lake Berryessa

Adobe Fire - 8,200 acres, 0% contained - Near Kenwood
Norrbom Fire - 1,800 acres, 0% contained - E of Boyes Hot Springs
Nuns Fire - 7,600 acres, 2% contained - Hwy 12, N of Glen Ellen
Pocket Fire - 4,000 acres, 0% contained - Off Pocket Ranch Rd and Ridge Ranch Rd, Geyserville

Cascade Fire - 12,000 acres, 20% contained - Cascade Wy & Marysville Rd, N of Collins Lake

The return of gusty winds Wednesday helped spread blazes that have already killed at least 21 people, burned 3,500 homes and other structures and charred at least 190,000 acres.

"While we had a brief respite yesterday from the winds, we have returned to red flag conditions," he said, "Very dry humidity -- 8 percent in many locations and winds from the north in some places at 40 mph."

The latest fatalities were confirmed late Wednesday morning. The Yuba County Sheriff's Department said a body was found in a burned-out home in Loma Rica, about 27 miles northeast of Yuba City. Cal Fire reported three more deaths in Mendocino County.

The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning beginning at 5 p.m. PT Wednesday and running though 5 p.m. PT Thursday for the Bay Area with predictions of northeast winds up to 30 mph with gusts up to 40 mph. Forecasters say the next chance for showers in the Bay Area will not arrive until Oct. 20 at the earliest.

Sonoma County officials said their list of missing was downgraded Wednesday afternoon. Out of 600 people, 315 have been found and 285 were still being sought. Sheriff Robert Giordano also said any reports of immigration status being checked at shelters was not true.

Earlier, Giordano told reporters he expected the death toll in the county that currently was at 11 to climb once search teams began looking through debris.

"This fire was unbelievably fast," he said. "The timeline is almost imperceptible in how fast it moved."

There were 22 wildfires burning throughout Northern California, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. They have burned more than 200,000 acres with little containment of most of the blazes.

"Tonight and tomorrow will be a real test for us," he said of the predictions of gusty winds later Wednesday.

Wine Country Wildfires: How You Can Help

Overnight, there were reports of homes burned in the Santa Rosa's Oakmont neighborhood.

Paul Lowenthal, a spokesman for the Santa Rosa-area fire, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that the homes destroyed by the fire were in the higher elevations of the senior community.

"The sky is clear, the moon is clearly visible but I can see the orange haze over that side of town," he told the paper. "The concerns now are the transition from the cold still morning to the heat of the day and where the winds are going to take us."

The stiff early morning winds Wednesday quickly drove the Napa's Atlas Peak fire into neighboring Solano County. Firefighters from all over California and the West were waging a desperate battle to halt the wildfire's eastern march.

In Napa Valley, a region famed for its wines and a favored tourist destination, five wineries have been completely destroyed while another dozen have been damaged. While most of the grape growers in the region had already harvested their white wine grapes, their red wine grapes remain on the vine and concern is growing over the impact of the airborne ash and smoke.

School districts throughout wine country have cancelled classes for at least the remainder of this week.

Additionally, a number of school districts in Contra Costa County announced they would close on Thursday because of poor air quality in the area from the North Bay wildfires.

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, smoke from the fires have draped a haze over the region and led to historic poor air quality levels. Local hospitals report treating numerous patients for breathing issues.

Stories of heroism and great loss have been emerging from the fire region.

The Rippey family was mourning the deaths of their parents -- 100-year-old Charles and 98-year-old Sara -- who were killed when their home near the Silverado golf course in Napa was engulfed with flames early Monday.

"This house was one of the first ones hit (in the subdivision)," son Mike Rippey told KPIX 5. "The fire came out of those hills and it was coming 30-40-50 miles an hour and it was like a rainstorm expect it was fire. It was blowing hot debris through the air."

"There were no responders here yet. Later on down the road, a lot of the responders were going door to door, pulling people out of the houses. But nobody was able to get here. My mother and father being 100 and 98 were not able to move fast enough to get out on their own."

Like hundreds of others, Jose Garnica worked for more than two decades to build up his wine country dream home that was reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes by the deadly firestorm.

"You feel helpless," he said. "There's nothing you can do. Everything, your whole life, goes through your mind in a minute. Everything you had done. I left all my family behind in Mexico to get a better life. Finally we were just coming to the comfort level, and this happens."

Bob and Tammy Christiansen lived at their home on Hopper Avenue in the devastated Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa for more than three decades, raising their three children in the house.

"There's a lot of memories in this house. This is hard," said Bob, who works as an electrician.

As they looked through the rubble searching for Tammy's wedding ring, a shining object caught their eye. She had taken it off before going to bed Sunday night and thought like the family's other cherished momentos had been lost.Now, with a smile and slight tear, she had found it.

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