Hundreds missing in California wildfires

cali fires

Firefighters have begun to gain ground against the spread of wildfires that have killed at least 26 people in northern California and left hundreds missing in the heart of the state's wine country.

A brief resurgence of dry, gusty winds threatened to push flames into the Napa Valley town of Calistoga, where 5000-plus residents were ordered from their homes on Wednesday night as conditions worsened and fire crept closer.

Calistoga mayor Chris Canning said anyone refusing to heed the mandatory evacuation would be left to fend for themselves if fire approached, warning on Thursday: "You are on your own."

However, extreme wind conditions that had been forecast for Wednesday night and early Thursday failed to materialise, giving crews a chance to begin carving containment lines around the perimeter.

"Overall, we are definitely making progress," said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), on Thursday, adding that the situation was less dire than earlier in the week.

Nearly two dozen blazes spanning eight counties have raged largely unchecked since igniting on Sunday night, scorching more than 77,000 hectares - an area nearly the size of New York City - and destroying at least 3500 homes and other buildings.

Entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to panoramas of ash, smouldering ruins, charred trees and burned-out cars by a series of firestorms that rank among the deadliest and most destructive in California's history.

The official cause of the disaster was under investigation, but power lines knocked down by gale-force winds may have sparked the conflagration.

Twenty-six people, all civilians, have been confirmed dead, the greatest loss of life from a California wildfire event since 1991, and authorities said the death toll could climb higher. Fire officials have said some of the victims were asleep when the fast-moving fires engulfed their homes before they could escape.

"We have found bodies that were completely intact, and we have found bodies that were no more than ash and bone," Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano told reporters.

As many as 900 missing-persons reports had been filed in Sonoma County alone, although 437 have since turned up safe, Giordano said.

It remained unclear how many of the 463 still listed as unaccounted for might be actual fire victims rather than evacuees who failed to alert authorities after fleeing their homes, he said.

"The best we can pray for is that they haven't checked in," emergency operations spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque told Reuters.

About 25,000 people remained displaced on Wednesday as the fires belched smoke that drifted over the San Francisco Bay area, about 80km to the south, where visibility was shrouded in haze and automobiles were coated with ash.

The National Weather Service warned on Thursday morning of persistent "critical fire weather conditions" in the fire zone for the next three days, with no rain expected and dry winds from the north with gusts upward of 55km/h.

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Image: Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP