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'Every glowing ember is a ticking time bomb': Firefighters battle deadly flames in wine country

The battle to save homes and whole communities from Northern California’s devastating firestorms is being fought on hillsides and canyons across wine country by an army of firefighters.

The crews are doing all they can to block the flames from advancing, a job that was made more difficult when winds picked up Wednesday. These red-flag conditions are expected to continue through at least Thursday evening.

“The clock is ticking, so we’re giving it everything we’ve got,” Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said as he sliced through dry grass and stubborn roots with a blade. “This isn’t that sexy. It’s called mop-up, and right now it is critical.”

A few miles away, on a ridgeline just north of Calistoga, a hand crew of 13 firefighters worked on a smoldering slope.

“Every glowing ember is a ticking time bomb,” said Stephen Warren, a Cal Fire apparatus engineer.

Commanders dispatched crews of already exhausted and sore firefighters to fan out across recently scorched mountainsides near Calistoga and Santa Rosa.

Their job was to find and extinguish hot spots laden with embers. With axes and shovels, they chopped at shrubs and turned the soil.

The winds can reignite hidden embers and send them hurtling through the air. If they land in areas not yet burned, there would be little that firefighters could do to stop them from setting off new conflagrations.

Firefighters were warned Thursday morning that critical “red flag” conditions remain, with strong winds, low humidity and “extremely receptive fuels.” Forecasted gusts of up to 40 mph are expected to ease in the afternoon, however, diminishing the risk of a runaway fire. The probability of rain in the five-day forecast remains 0%.

The latest Cal Fire maps on Thursday showed that firefighters battling the wine country blazes had created containment lines and completed bulldozer breaks at key locations.

Statewide, 30 air tankers, nearly 75 helicopters, 550 fire engines and several thousand firefighters have already been pressed into action. State officials requested more than 300 additional engines from other states and the federal government.

The massive Atlas fire in Napa and Solano counties grew to 43,000 acres, burning the eastern hills surrounding Napa, Napa County spokeswoman Nikki Lundeen said Thursday morning. The Tubbs fire, which burned much of Santa Rosa and prompted Napa County officials to evacuate the entire town of Calistoga, reached about 35,000 acres, she said. The Partrick fire has burned around 9,500 acres, and the Nuns fire has consumed about 8,400 acres.

The death toll from the fires rose to 23 late Wednesday, and Sonoma County officials have received 600 reports of missing people. Of those, 315 have been found safe.

Authorities said that with communications hobbled by downed cellphone towers and people making hasty escapes, they were hopeful that most, if not all, of the others would turn up safe.

“We’ve had big fires in the past,” Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday at a briefing with state and federal fire officials. “This is one of the biggest.”

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