At least 23 dead, hundreds missing, as winds fan California fires">

At least 23 dead, hundreds missing, as winds fan California fires

At least 23 people have been killed by the fires in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Yuba counties, where 3,500 homes and businesses had been burned at last count. Officials expect the death toll to rise — perhaps significantly — when officers begin going into the “hot zones” that were immolated in the firestorm.

“We can’t even get into most of the areas,” Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said. “When we start doing searches, I expect that number to go up.”

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Amid these grim bulletins, the huge utility company PG&E; acknowledged that the extreme winds late Sunday and early Monday had knocked trees into power lines in conditions conducive to wildfires.

“The historic wind event that swept across PG&E;’s service area late Sunday and early Monday packed hurricane-strength winds in excess of 75 mph in some cases,” said Ari Vanrenen, a PG&E; spokeswoman, in a statement released after the San Jose Mercury News first reported on a possible link between the wildfires and the power grid.

“These destructive winds, along with millions of trees weakened by years of drought and recent renewed vegetation growth from winter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay,” she said.

Vanrenen said the company was up to date in the maintenance of its infrastructure and the surrounding vegetation but that excess rain last winter, followed by a drought, has created a lot of dry brush.

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