Winds expected to drive next wave of deadly California fires — VIDEO


California Wildfires

Colby Clark of San Francisco, left, comforts her mother, Bonnie Trexler, after being escorted by law enforcement to her home in Silverado Highland to retrieve medicine and some personal items on Wednesday, Oct., 11, 2017 in Napa, Calif. Trexler was one of the lucky few who found that her home was spared from the devastating fire which burned homes around her Monday. (Randy Pench /The Sacramento Bee via AP)

California Wildfires

Homes destroyed from fires are seen from an aerial view in Santa Rosa, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

APTOPIX California Wildfires

Homes burned by a wildfire are seen Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

California Wildfires

A rooster walks by one of several burned out vehicles after a wildfire destroyed a home and farm on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Calistoga, Calif. Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee via AP)

CORRECTION California Wildfires

CORRECTS TO STAY INSTEAD OF ARE AT HOME Mason Heyman, 18, and his family stay after a mandatory evacuation order issued on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Calistoga, Calif. Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee via AP)

Anh Nguyen

Oakland Police officer Anh Nguyen spray paints the street to mark that a house in Calistoga, Calif., is vacant on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. The entire historic town of Calistoga, population 5,000, was evacuated. Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee via AP)

California Wildfires

A couple makes their way into a Red Cross disaster relief center Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

California Wildfires

Jim Merriman, right, and his wife Lu, have a meal while spending the evening at a Red Cross disaster relief center Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif. The couple had to evacuate from their home in the Mendocino Woods neighborhood of Santa Rosa. Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

California Wildfires

This Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017, satellite image using shortwave infrared (SWIR) provided by DigitalGlobe shows damage from the wildfire near Santa Rosa, Calif. SWIR imagery allows for the ability to see though smoke to identify active fires, top. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned. (Digital Globe via AP)

California Wildfires

This Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017 satellite image using a Very Near Infrared (VNIR) provided by DigitalGlobe shows damage from the wildfire near Santa Rosa, Calif. VNIR imagery causes healthy vegetation to appear red and the burn scar from the wildfire to be dark brown. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned. (Digital Globe via AP)

California Wildfires

An empty Lincoln Street is shown after residents evacuated Calistoga, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. The entire historic town of Calistoga, population 5,000, was evacuated. In neighboring Sonoma County, authorities issued an evacuation advisory for part of the town of Sonoma and the community of Boyes Hot Springs. By that time, lines of cars were already fleeing. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

California Wildfires

Historic artifacts are removed from the Sonoma State Historic Park, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Sonoma, Calif. With fire raging around the area, authorities removed historic items for safe keeping. Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

California Wildfires Things That Survived

Tammy Christiansen holds out her wedding ring along with her son's wrestling trophy that she found after searching the remains of her burned Coffey Park neighborhood home Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

California Wildfires

Tammy Christiansen searches the remains of her Coffey Park neighborhood home Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif. During her search she found her wedding ring and her son's wrestling trophy. Officials say they have thousands of firefighters battling 22 blazes burning in Northern California and that more are coming from nearby states. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

California Wildfires

Marshall Hayman, 26, and his family stay after a mandatory evacuation order issued on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Calistoga, Calif. He lost his home in Calistoga on the first day of the fire. Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee via AP)

California Wildfires

Chris Shiery pets his dog, Ruby, while waiting to evacuate the town of Sonoma, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. With fires getting near, the town was placed under a voluntary evacuation order. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

California Wildfires

Cars crowd the streets as residents evacuate Sonoma, Calif, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. With fires getting near, the town was placed under a voluntary evacuation order.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

California Wildfires

Aerial view show the scope of devastation in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (Karl Mondon /San Jose Mercury News via AP)

California Wildfires

Burned by the Tubbs fire, only a pool remains among the ashes of an Old Redwood Highway complex near Mark West Springs Road, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, California. (Karl Mondon /San Jose Mercury News via AP)

California Wildfires

Two women, sort through the rubble of the property on 106 West Gate Drive in Napa, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. The property is where an elderly couple, died during the fire last Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. (Ray Chavez /San Jose Mercury News via AP)

California Wildfires

Charred ground and only a few pieces are the remains of the historic Fountaingrove Round Barn Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif. The barn was built in 1899 and was a hillside landmark. Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

California Wildfires

This Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows damage from the wildfire and Fountaingrove Golf & Athletic Club in Santa Rosa, Calif. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned. (Digital Globe via AP)

California Wildfires

This Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017, satellite image using shortwave infrared (SWIR) provided by DigitalGlobe shows damage from the wildfire in Santa Rosa, Calif. SWIR imagery allows for the ability to see though smoke to identify active fires, top left. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned. (Digital Globe via AP)

California Wildfires

This Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017 satellite image using a Very Near Infrared (VNIR) provided by DigitalGlobe shows damage from the wildfire near Santa Rosa, Calif. VNIR imagery causes healthy vegetation to appear red and the burn scar from the wildfire to be dark brown. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned. (Digital Globe via AP)

California Wildfires

The view of the downtown San Jose, Calif., is filled with a smoky haze seen from the 18th floor of San Jose City Hall Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. Officials say they have thousands of firefighters battling almost two dozen blazes burning in Northern California and that more are coming from nearby states. (Josie Lep/San Jose Mercury News via AP)

California Wildfires

Flames burn along a ridge above Sonoma, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. An advisory evacuation was issued for residents of the area as the fire moved toward the historic town. Officials say they have thousands of firefighters battling almost two dozen blazes burning in Northern California and that more are coming from nearby states. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

California Wildfires

Homes on Sky Farm Drive in the middle of the frame are decimated, as is the rest of Fountaingrove, Wednesday Oct. 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP)

APTOPIX California Wildfires

A San Diego Cal Fire firefighter monitors a flare up on a the head of a wildfire (the Southern LNU Complex), off of High Road above the Sonoma Valley, Wednesday Oct. 11, 2017, in Sonoma, Calif. A wind shift caused flames to move quickly up hill and threaten homes in the area. Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP)

SONOMA, Calif.  |  Wildfires already well on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history could gain momentum Thursday and erase even the modest gains firefighters have made.

Steady winds with gusts up to 45 mph (72 kph) with nearly non-existent humidity are expected to descend on the areas north of San Francisco where at least 23 people have died and at least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed.

“It’s going to continue to get worse before it gets better,” state fire Chief Ken Pimlott said Wednesday.

Entire cities had evacuated in anticipation of the next wave, their streets empty, the only motion coming from ashes falling like snowflakes.

They included Calistoga, the historic resort town of wine tastings and hot springs, whose 5,300 people are all under evacuation orders. Tens of thousands more were also driven from their homes by the flames. A few left behind cookies for firefighters and signs that read, “Please save our home!”

The 22 fires spanned more than 265 square miles (686 square kilometers) as they entered their fourth day, many of them completely out of control. Modern, strategic attacks that have kept destruction and death tolls low in recent years just haven’t worked against their ferocity.

“We are literally looking at explosive vegetation,” Pimlott said. “Make no mistake,” he later added, “this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event.”

The community of Boyes Hot Springs in Sonoma County also was told to clear out Wednesday, and the streets were quickly lined with cars packed with people fleeing.

“That’s very bad,” resident Nick Hinman said when a deputy sheriff warned him that the driving winds could shift the wildfires toward the town of Sonoma proper, where 11,000 people live. “It’ll go up like a candle.”

The ash rained down on the Sonoma Valley, covering windshields, as winds began picking up toward the potentially disastrous forecast speed of 30 mph (48 kph). Countless emergency vehicles sped toward the flames, sirens blaring, as evacuees sped away. Residents manhandled canvas bags into cars jammed with possessions or filled their gas tanks.

State fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said 22 wildfires were burning Wednesday, up from 17 the day before. As the fires grow, officials voiced concern that separate blazes would merge into even larger infernos.

“We have had big fires in the past. This is one of the biggest, most serious, and it’s not over,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a news conference Wednesday, alongside the state’s top emergency officials.

They said 8,000 firefighters and other personnel were battling the blazes and more resources were pouring in from Arizona, Nevada, Washington and Oregon.

Flames raced across the wine-growing region and the scenic coastal area of Mendocino farther north, leveling whole neighborhoods and leaving only brick chimneys and charred appliances to mark where homes once stood.

In Boyes Hot Springs, residents had watched the ridges over the west side of town for days to gauge how close the billowing smoke and orange flames of the wildfires had come. On Wednesday, the ridges were obscured by the growing clouds of smoke.

With fires advancing from several sides in Sonoma Valley, law enforcement officers on loan from other areas of Northern California barred residents of evacuated communities from returning to see how the homes and businesses had fared. Manned roadblocks were set up between Sonoma and devastated areas of Santa Rosa.

Alejandro Rodriguez had been evacuated from one tiny Sonoma Valley town, only to have deputies come to the neighborhood to where he had relocated and tell residents there to pack up and go.

“I want to see my house, see if anything’s left,” Rodriguez said, gesturing at officers at one roadblock. “They won’t tell us nothing.”

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said hundreds of people were still reported missing. But officials believe many of those people will be found. Chaotic evacuations and poor communications over the past few days have made locating friends and family difficult.

The sheriff also expects the death toll to climb.

“The devastation is enormous,” he said. “We can’t even get into most areas.”

Helicopters and air tankers were assisting thousands of firefighters trying to beat back the flames. Until now, the efforts have focused on “life safety” rather than extinguishing the blazes, partly because the flames were shifting with winds and targeting new communities without warning.

Fires were “burning faster than firefighters can run, in some situations,” Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci said.

In Southern California, cooler weather and moist ocean air helped firefighters gain ground against a wildfire that has scorched nearly 14 square miles (36 sq. kilometers).

Orange County fire officials said the blaze was 60 percent contained and full containment was expected by Sunday, although another round of gusty winds and low humidity levels could arrive late Thursday.

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Gecker reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez, Juliet Williams and Andrew Dalton in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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Follow the AP’s complete wildfire coverage here: https://apnews.com/tag/Wildfires .