NEW: Death toll rises to 23, officials say
Wind gusts made fighting fires more difficult Wednesday
In some areas in Sonoma County, the wildfires that have ravaged tens of thousands of acres died down enough Wednesday for the sheriff’s department to check on more than 600 missing persons reports by visiting burned-out neighborhoods.
In many other cases, detectives used telephones to track down people who are unaccounted for.
Still, 285 people remain missing in just this one county, people who authorities pray are still alive but have no way to contact police or their loved ones.
But there is some dread that the death toll – 23 in the region – from the Northern California wildfires will rise as more areas cool down and searchers discover what’s left.
“I’m optimistic that we will get a lot of people connected,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said. “At the same time we have to be realistic and start searching for the ones we found are missing.”
Firefighters battling 22 blazes were challenged Wednesday by blustery conditions and shifting winds.
Thousands of people have been ordered to evacuate, including Calistoga and parts of the Sonoma County city of Geyserville.
More than 20,000 people had been ordered to evacuate as of Wednesday, and authorities were encouraging others to pack “ready-to-go bags” with documents and medicines in case they had to flee the fast-spreading flames on a moment’s notice.
Giordano had a suggestion for people who’d been advised to be prepared to leave: Go anyway.
“Traffic is bad in the county. If we have to evacuate people, it’d be better to have you (already) out of the area. If you have a place to go, go,” he said.
“We are very concerned about all the fire lines, because of the wind they’re anticipating,” he said.