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Death toll rises to 21 as Northern California fires spread

Phil Willon, Paige St. John, Louis Sahagun and Sonali Kohli, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SONOMA, Calif. -- The death toll rose to 21 Wednesday as multiple wildfires continued to spread across Northern California, according to state fire officials.

As the devastating firestorm continued to spread in Sonoma and Napa counties Wednesday, crews launched a desperate effort to extinguish key hot spots before heavy, fire-stoking winds could kick back up later in the day.

Officials fear that strong winds forecast for Wednesday evening and Thursday morning will spread embers from the deadly Tubbs fire to populated areas of Santa Rosa and Calistoga that have so far been spared the flames -- and new evacuation orders were issued.

"We are facing some pretty significant monsters," Cal Fire incident commander Bret Couvea told a room of about 200 firefighters and law enforcement officials at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds staging area Wednesday morning.

Already, the Northern California fires have scorched more than 160,000 acres. Cal Fire, also known as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, estimates that around 3,500 structures have been destroyed.

Winds were projected to be light, less than 5 miles per hour, from the north in the morning. They will increase to about 15 miles per hour in the afternoon in the valleys, officials said.

At night, however, "the return of the north wind will have a strong influence on the southern portions of the Tubbs fire," a Cal Fire weather report said. "Winds will be 25 to 30 miles per hour after 2 a.m. These strong winds have the potential to push the fire south back towards Calistoga and Santa Rosa, especially where the fire was active yesterday (Tuesday) on the north side."

On Wednesday, the Lake County Sheriff's Department issued an advisory evacuation order for residents of Middletown -- which was heavily damaged in the Valley fire just two years ago and rebuilt -- as the Tubbs fire approached from the south.

Late Tuesday night, evacuations were ordered in Calistoga for the Tubbs fire, and in other areas of Napa and Sonoma counties for the Atlas Peak fire, the Nuns fire and the Pocket fire, officials said.

"The (Atlas) fire became active overnight, started burning more of the community," Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said.

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