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Northern California Wildfires Still Burning As Death Toll Is Expected To Rise


Wildfires are flaring up again today in northern California. Winds are feeding them in Napa and Sonoma Counties. Tens of thousands of acres are burnt along with 3,500 homes and businesses. The fires have also left 21 people dead. And with hundreds of people currently listed as missing, authorities say that number is likely to rise. NPR's Eric Westervelt is in Napa County and is with us now from the Napa sheriff's department headquarters. Hey there, Eric.


MCEVERS: So what is the latest on the fires where you are right now?

WESTERVELT: Well, I should say there's a light coating of ash falling down all around me right now. There's a smoky, gray haze everywhere around Napa County, the smell of burning wood in the air. There were more evacuations ordered last night in parts of Sonoma and Napa County. We're now looking at 22 fires across this wine country. Many of them are not at all under control, Kelly. I mean, fire officials here say, look; it's a fluid situation. They're moving quickly, and there are fears that some of these fires could merge.

And the wind is of course key to all this, to battling these fires. You know, it was a little cooler, and winds were a little calmer yesterday. That gave a boost to firefighters. But you know, overnight and today, the wind's picking back up, and that's added more power to the fires. And stronger winds are predicted for later today and this evening, you know? And it's shifting from a southwest wind to a north wind, and so more wind and low humidity will mean, you know, big challenges for the firefighters working long hours on these lines. And I spoke just a little while ago with Barry Biermann. He's the Napa County fire chief.

CHIEF BARRY BIERMANN: Winds are predicted to be in the 10- to 30-mile-an-hour range with higher gusts. That will create extreme fire behavior. And when you put this all together, it is going to be a very challenging situation. We will continue to evaluate the situation on every fire, and we will issue additional evacuation warnings and orders as become appropriate.

MCEVERS: Orders and warnings as they become appropriate - what have you heard there in Napa from people about evacuations?

WESTERVELT: Well, there was a new evacuation ordered for Green Valley in Solano County, a neighboring county, and in Calistoga. That's the northern part of Napa County home to some 5,000 residents. And it's a big wine center, and there are historic hot springs there. I spoke today with Diane Dillon. She's the county supervisor for really northern Napa County. She was up all night tired. At around 3:30, she says she got the alert. She then went door to door with police, telling half the town or more they needed to leave right now.

DIANE DILLON: And we started walking and knocking on doors. Within a half hour, people were already driving out and - with their cars stocked. There were some people who were surprised and didn't know it was coming, but they didn't resist.

MCEVERS: Eric, as we mentioned at the top of this hour, hundreds of people have been reported as missing at this point. What do we know about them?

WESTERVELT: Well, remember, Kelly. People left in a hurry. Some may not have had, you know, their cellphones. They may not have told relatives, you know, I'm going to this friend's or I'm going to this cousin's. And cell service was pretty spotty for the first 48 hours. So some of those high numbers, you know, police here say is just part of the chaos of so many fires that came so quickly. And people may not have checked in or updated their missing person report. That's a big part of it. That said, authorities say the death toll is likely to rise in coming days when they can sort of get in to these so-called hot spots and look for the dead, missing.

MCEVERS: This is day three of these fires. And besides the unpredictability of the wind, what is the biggest challenge now?

WESTERVELT: Well, I think fatigue is a huge factor here. I mean, one fire official said, look; you know, we're used to long hours and difficult hours, but this is really pushing people to the limit. Cal Fire is working to get their crews some rest, some food, to kind of get them rejuvenated. And some relief has arrived, but with so many fires raging across northern California, you know, fire resources are stretched thin. And rest is really in short supply, and that's something they're going to try to get today as they try to rejuvenate people for the fires ahead.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt in Napa County, Calif. Thanks a lot.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.