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Wildfires Keep California Under Siege

Death toll mounts and hundreds are missing as tens of thousands flee unrelenting blazes

NAPA, Calif.—Three days after powerful winds spread more than a dozen wildfires across Northern California, firefighters were still struggling to contain the fast-moving blazes. By Wednesday afternoon, state officials said, they had made little progress, and many of the fires were growing and out of control.

So far, the fires have killed at least 23 people—including an elderly couple married for 75 years and a 27-year-old woman who used a wheelchair.

Hundreds more were reported missing. Roughly 170,000 acres had been burned, and more than 3,500 homes and commercial structures destroyed. Thousands more people were forced to evacuate early Wednesday, bringing the statewide total to more than 60,000 evacuees.

“We’ve had big fires in the past, this is one of the biggest, the most serious. It’s not over,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said on Wednesday.

Already, the 22 fires ignited since Sunday, taken together, would amount to the third-deadliest fire in California since at least 1923, according to state records. State officials said they expected the death toll would continue to rise, once crews were able to start searching buildings that had burned.

Firefighters spent the night plucking trapped people off of burning hillsides and knocking on doors to tell residents to evacuate. Containment on most of the fires was “very low,” said Ken Pimlott, chief of CAL-FIRE, the state’s firefighting agency.

Conditions were expected to get even worse late Wednesday, with 40-mile-per-hour winds and low humidity.

“The fires are just literally burning faster than firefighters can run in some cases,” Mr. Pimlott said. “These are going to be very unpredictable.”

Gov. Brown said the cost of the fire will be “tens of billions” of dollars and that California must be prepared for other destructive fires in the future. “That’s the way it is with a warming climate and dry weather and reducing moisture,” he said.

The worst of the damage was concentrated around California’s premier wine country, in Sonoma and Napa counties, where even veteran firefighters were astounded by how quickly the flames were moving.

The winds were pushing embers as much as a mile beyond the burn area, Mr. Pimlott said, and into developed urban areas that have been safe from wildfires in decades past.

Sonoma is so far the hardest hit of all the Nothern California counties. Of the 21 people who have died, 16 were in Sonoma County. County officials said they were sifting through 600 missing person reports—by Wednesday they had found 315 people safe, but said 285 are still missing.

Mr. Pimlott, with the state fire agency, said the fires in the Sonoma region area are “our top priority.”

In Santa Rosa, a city of more than 100,000 people, entire neighborhoods were destroyed on Sunday night and Monday morning. Additional residents of the city fled on Tuesday night, as the swirling winds threatened to push the fire back toward them.

One three-man crew from the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District had stopped on a corner of Fountaingrove Parkway to use a fire hydrant to fill up their red engine. They had been putting out flare-ups for the past 30 hours.

One side of the residential street was scorched. On the other, a two-story house with black shutters stood untouched by flame.

Justin Enderlin, one of the Contra Costa firefighters, said the battle against these wildfires is personal. His father’s house—less than 2 miles from where Mr. Enderlin stood snuffing out hot spots—went up in flames earlier in the week.

“It’s gone,” he said, recounting that his father woke up at 3 a.m., smelled smoke and fled. His dad tried to go back two hours later to retrieve some guns and instead saw flames in his attic. “The house was fully engulfed by 5 a.m.”

“You don’t expect this to happen here,” Mr. Enderlin said of Santa Rosa. “This is what you expect in the foothills.”

Also surprising, said firefighter Garrett Knapp, is “just how quickly it was going up.”

Thousands of firefighters from across California—and the country—are pouring into the area, hoping to slow the spread of the fires, even as weather conditions worsen. Mr. Pimlott said all the available air support in the country was in California. After being unable to fly because of smoke for much of the day on Tuesday, helicopters and air tankers were back in the air on Wednesday.

A ring of fire burned around Napa Valley on all sides Wednesday, with firefighters trying to defend population centers as the flames moved closer to cities. Officials said they were concerned that some of the fires could combine to form one even larger fire.

Shifting winds and unreliable cellphone service complicated escape. The fires had initially damaged more than 70 cellular towers. By Wednesday, cell service and electricity had also been restored in much of wine country.

Many fled to one area, only to find themselves having to escape again as flames approached. Shortly after midnight Sunday, Matt Moye and his family smelled smoke from inside their Napa home. Outside, sheriff’s deputies were blocking off roads, yelling at him to leave immediately.

The Moyes left with nothing but their pajamas, and headed to their family business, the Vincent Arroyo Winery in Calistoga, on the northern end of the Napa Valley. But by early Wednesday morning, evacuations were also ordered for much of Calistoga, and the Moye family was on the move again as the Tubbs Fire approached. That fire had burned 28,000 acres and was at 0% containment.

“With the winds changing, who knows—the hard thing about this fire is it just doesn’t wipe out a whole neighborhood, it will be pickier,” Mr. Moye said.

Chris Childs, a California Highway Patrol captain, said his agency had air-rescued about 50 people on mountainsides in Napa County.

Diane Dillon, a Napa County supervisor, said officials went door to door in Calistoga between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. Wednesday and evacuated about 2,000 of the 5,000 residents there. They closed a shelter at Calistoga fairgrounds and moved people to other shelters, she said.By Wednesday afternoon, evacuation orders were issued for the entire city, which is home to the geyser known as Old Faithful.

“We are anxiously awaiting what the winds will do.” Ms. Dillon said.

Firefighters made progress on a few fires, including a large fire in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, which had effectively stopped growing. Crews from that fire were now being dispatched to Northern California to help the exhausted firefighters there.

Write to Alejandro Lazo at alejandro.lazo@wsj.com, Erin Ailworth at Erin.Ailworth@wsj.com and Ian Lovett at Ian.Lovett@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
The fires burning in Northern California, added up, amount to the third-deadliest fire in the state since at least 1923, according to state records. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the fires would amount to the second-deadliest fire in the state since that time. (Oct. 12)

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