SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- More than 22 major wildfires are leveling cities and burning more than 170,000 acres across about eight counties in Northern California, killing at least 21 people while more than 500 people are missing in Sonoma County alone.
The smoke is so dense at points that NASA officials say Wednesday they could spot the fires at points from space. Though the root cause of the wildfires is under investigation, officials say high winds of more than 50 miles per hour spread the fire across dry conditions quickly. While wildfires can break out in California cyclically, it is almost unprecedented flames move over hills into heavily populated cities like this.
Santa Rosa, about 55 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, is among the most fire ravaged towns: residents had little time to evacuate Sunday night into Monday morning. Areas including near Coffey Lane, west of Highway 101 in the north end of town, are ashes with metal car frames and some foundations of homes left smoking among sparse trees.
"There are a lot of families who just lost everything they have, and there was very little warning for this," said Lejf Hansen, a Santa Rosa native whose home is one mile from the evacuation zone.
"This happened in the middle of the night. These fires sparked and people were being evacuated 1, 2, 3, 4 a.m., folks just knocking on their doors."
Hansen left home early Monday morning and spoke to FOX 17 Wednesday from a friend's home in Cloverdale, about 15 miles north of a fire burning in Geyserville. He like many had little time to prepare.
"It went so fast that they didn't have time to get official word out," said Hansen. "It was just neighbors knocking on people's doors. So a lot of these people had to just jump in their cars with nothing but the clothes on their backs."
Officials including the California Highway Patrol Captain Mike Palacio say they believe this will become one of the worst disasters in California history. If you want to help communities recover and rebuild, as mandatory evacuations and loss of life continues, see this comprehensive list of organizations here.