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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

California 'horror' fires burn on, 40 dead in one week

Fast-moving fires spread by shifting winds forced thousands more to evacuate their homes on Saturday

Firefighters battle a wildfire near Santa Rosa, California, on October 14, 2017. Jim Urquhart / Reuters
Firefighters battle a wildfire near Santa Rosa, California, on October 14, 2017. Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Authorities hope weaker winds will help more than 10,000 firefighters battle the deadliest blazes in California history, which have killed at least 40 people and destroyed thousands of structures in one of the state's worst natural disasters in years.

Fast-moving fires spread by shifting winds forced thousands more to evacuate their homes on Saturday as the death toll over the week rose to 40, with hundreds missing.

More than 10,000 firefighters supported by air tankers and helicopters battled 16 major wildfires in areas north of San Francisco that have consumed roughly 865 square kilometres — an area larger than New York City.

The 40 confirmed fatalities, including 22 in Sonoma County, make it California's deadliest-ever fire event, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

With 235 people still missing on Saturday in Sonoma County alone and rubble from thousands of incinerated dwellings yet to be searched, authorities expect the death toll to climb.

Some 100,000 people have been forced from their homes, including 3,000 on Saturday from the city of Santa Rosa, about 80km north of San Francisco. The fires have damaged or destroyed about 5,700 structures, reducing homes and businesses to ash.

Some victims were asleep when flames engulfed their homes, while others had only minutes to flee.

"This is truly one of the greatest tragedies that California has ever faced. The devastation is just unbelievable. It is a horror that no one could have imagined," California Governor Jerry Brown said on a visit to a devastated city.

Janis and Roberto Lucha joined people lining up at a Federal Emergency Management Agency office in Santa Rosa, seeking help after losing their home of 27 years in the city's Coffey Park neighbourhood, where most homes burnt to the ground.

Molly Kurland, 63, joined a packed community meeting at the Santa Rosa High School gymnasium.

"Even for people who haven’t lost their house, the uncertainty and anxiety is tremendous," she said.

But there were heroic stories as well.

Teenage twins woke their parents on Sunday night to find fire engulfing the landscape.

The persistent alarms from Benjamin Lasker, 16, gave the family time to escape the conflagration with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Benjamin and his twin sister, Natalie, went on to awaken another eight families in their Fountain Grove neighbourhood in Santa Rosa, pounding on doors, yelling "Fire!" and shining lights in windows.

"They asked permission to wake people up," Howard Lasker told Reuters, adding: "I gave it to them."