SANTA ROSA, Calif., Oct 14 (Reuters) - Thousands more Californians evacuated their homes on Saturday as fierce wildfires spread due to constantly shifting winds, and officials expected the official death toll of 35 to rise with hundreds of people still missing.
Sixteen major wildfires, some encompassing several smaller merged blazes, have consumed nearly 214,000 acres (86,000 hectares) over seven days, or roughly 334 square miles, an area larger than New York City.
The 35 confirmed fatalities, including 19 in Sonoma County, make this the deadliest fire event in California history. Some 100,000 people have been forced from their homes, including another 3,000 evacuated on Saturday from the city of Santa Rosa, about 50 miles (80 km) north of San Francisco, and another 250 from nearby Sonoma city.
"It's an unwieldy beast right now," fire information officer Dennis Rein said at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, the main staging area for the so-called Nuns Fire in Sonoma County, a wine-producing region.
More than 10,000 firefighters are battling the fires, which have destroyed 5,700 buildings. At least a dozen Napa Valley wineries were damaged or destroyed, throwing California's wine industry and related tourism into disarray.
Aerial footage taken today shows massive wildfires burning through Santa Rosa as Northern California fires have killed 35 people so far. pic.twitter.com/hyicFrUkiT— World News Tonight (@ABCWorldNews) October 14, 2017
From the air, some 70 helicopters and large aircraft including a 747, two DC-10s and about a dozen air tankers doused flames up and down the state with fire retardant, officials said.
On the ground, prison inmates were helping firefighters - sometimes digging lines to help contain fires, other times preparing meals at command centers, always with a guard watching over them.
In an area largely dependent on immigrant farm labor, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they would temporarily suspend routine operations during the emergency, "except in the event of a serious criminal presenting a public safety threat," spokesman James Schwab said in a statement.
Ground crews gained on the wildfires on Friday but drier weather and fast-changing winds complicated efforts on Saturday, sparking a new large wildfire in Lake County, officials said.
The Nuns Fire, which had killed at least one person, was only 10 percent contained with winds threatening more residential areas, Cal Fire spokesman Antonio Negrete said.
But the more deadly Tubbs Fire, which killed at least 17 people in Sonoma County, was 44 percent contained, which officials considered a victory.
"It's cautious optimism but it's optimism," Negrete said of the Tubbs Fire.
Cal Fire had estimated the fires would be contained by Oct. 20 but may need to revise that date because of the winds that kicked up, Rein said.
"It'll set us back a planning cycle. Everything is very dynamic," Rein said.
Melissa Kenworthy, who was getting breakfast on Saturday at a Santa Rosa Red Cross center, said she fled her home in nearby Geyserville when the fires began on Sunday and has been camping in a recreational vehicle park.
As far as she knew, her house was still standing but Geyserville was threatened by the Pocket Fire, which was only 5 percent contained, and she said she would not go home "until the rains come."
Whole neighborhoods of Santa Rosa have been reduced to landscapes of gray ash, smoldering debris and burned-out vehicles.
Some victims were asleep when flames engulfed their homes, and many survivors had only minutes to flee.
California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones on Saturday asked insurers to expedite claims for wildfire damage claims in order to help fire victims more quickly. Several insurers immediately agreed, his office said in a statement.
"Victims of these devastating wildfires need all the help we can provide," Jones said.
California Governor Jerry Brown said on Saturday that the White House has approved direct aid to people in Butte, Lake, Mendocino and Yuba counties who have suffered fire losses, expanding on Friday's action covering Napa and Sonoma counties.
The fires' death toll surpassed 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 have said the number of fatalities from the North Bay fires would likely climb.
The picturesque town of Calistoga, at the northern end of Napa Valley, faced one of the biggest remaining hazards. Its 5,000-plus residents were ordered from their homes on Wednesday night as a fierce blaze dubbed the Tubbs Fire crept to within 2 miles (3.2 km) of city limits. Mayor Chris Canning could not immediately be reached to comment.
The year's wildfire season is one of the worst in history in the United States, with nearly 8.6 million acres (3.5 million hectares) burned, just behind 2012, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. (Reporting by Heather Somerville, Daniel Trotta and Keith Coffman; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bill Trott)