Thousands Of Firefighters Battling 22 Fires In Northern California

One of the wettest winters on record, followed by the hottest summer on record, has created possibly the worst potential for fire in Napa County that the state has seen, authorities said Saturday.

Already entrenched in a weeklong battle against a series of fires scorching wine country that have killed dozens, the potential for more running flames remains, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Mike Smith.

Experts use a scientific formula to determine the potential of a fire, called its energy release component, Smith said.

On Saturday, that potential is the worst "in recorded history," Smith said.

Crews have not seen this amount of fuel this dry in the path of a fire in at least 26 years, he said.

"Today is going to be a much different day than you've experienced unless you were here" for the beginning, Tom Wright of the National Weather Service told fire crews at a Saturday morning briefing in Napa. "It's a really critical day."

But Napa County officials expressed some optimism at a Saturday morning news conference just an hour and a half later, saying they were confident that the Atlas fires would remain under control. Around 9 a.m., as supervisor Belia Ramos spoke, winds were light and no new evacuations were expected.

Outside of a troublesome 22- to 30-acre spot fire on the northern face of the Atlas fire, the blaze has stayed mostly within its current footprint, Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said.

Recognizing the eagerness of residents to return to their homes, authorities on Saturday pleaded for patience. 

No one was going to be allowed into the evacuation areas Saturday, officials said, because Caltrans was spending the day trying to restore the roads.

The National Guard has been called in to help the California Highway Patrol block the roads, as Caltrans crews in the hills clear rocks, mud, burned trees, fallen branches and downed power lines, CHP Capt. Chris Childs said.

Locals have been urged to avoid trying to help the cleanup. The county public health director declared a local emergency to order to bring in more resources to remove toxic ash and burnt remnants of homes and cars.

Of 224 people unaccounted for in Napa County, 146 have been found safe, four have been identified as dead and 74 remain missing, county spokeswoman Molly Rattigan said.

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