Death toll rises to 40 in California fires

Forty people are now dead in what have become the deadliest and most destructive fires in California’s history.

The fires have consumed nearly 214,000 acres north of San Francisco, with the state’s governor Jerry Brown describing the scene as a “horror that no one could have imagined”.

He said: “This is truly one of the greatest tragedies that California has ever faced.

“The devastation is just unbelievable.”

The victims were aged between 14 and 100, most of them elderly.

Many of them were thought to have died between late 8 October and early 9 October, when the fires emerged and took many people by surprise.

There are still around 300 people missing but authorities are confident many of these will be found alive.

Sonoma County accounted for 22 of the fatalities and more than 200 of the missing.

Image:The stairs are all that remain of a home destroyed by the Atlas Fire in Napa

A week after the fires began, 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed.

Around 100,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, many of them being sheltered in churches, according to local media.

Tim Halbur lost his parents LeRoy and Donna, both 80, when they tried to flee their Santa Rosa home last week.

Both were well-known community volunteers and had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

He said: “The winds came up pretty quickly, it was all countryside behind them.

“My mom was found in the car in the garage, my dad was somewhere on the driveway. He probably had gotten her into the car and he went outside to check on conditions.”

One of the youngest victims was Kai Shepherd, a 14-year-old killed by the flames as he and his family tried to escape, first in their cars and then apparently on foot.

A neighbour found their two charred cars, then Kai’s mother, father and 17-year-old sister, all badly burned but alive. Kai was found too but he did not survive.

Image:Firefighters are working 24 hours on, 24 hours off as they try to contain the fires

At least a dozen of the famous wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma County have been ruined, something that will have a long-term effect on the region’s important tourism industry.

More than 10,000 firefighters, including many from outside the state, have been battling the 16 major fires, with the help of air tankers and 70 helicopters.

The forecast is for high temperatures and dry conditions to continue through the weekend but winds are expected to weaken, which could help firefighters.

Image:An aerial view shows the burned properties in Santa Rosa

The Cascade Fire, about 80 miles from Santa Rosa, was 81% contained on Saturday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

But the much larger Atlas Fire, which now covers more than 50,000 acres northeast of Napa, is just 45% contained.

US President Donald Trump has so far said nothing about the fires on his favoured medium, Twitter. His tweets on Saturday were mainly about his son’s appearance on Fox News and his healthcare plans.