Smoke from California wildfires blows out over the Pacific Ocean in this NASA satellite view.
Smoke from California wildfires blows out over the Pacific Ocean in this NASA satellite view.

Wildfires in Northern California's wine country continued to rage out of control on Saturday, as weather conditions remained extremely dangerous. The death toll stood at 38 — a count that was certain to rise as authorities continue to search burned-over areas for missing persons. More than 5,000 structures have been destroyed, with more losses expected. And the end is not in sight: "Northern California officials ordered a new round of mandatory evacuations overnight for parts of the Sonoma Valley and eastern Santa Rosa as gusting winds returned," the Washington Post reported late on Saturday (see: "Thousands more Californians ordered to flee wildfires as gusting winds return," by Lisa Bonos, Amy B Wang and Cleve R. Wootson Jr.)

The New York Times had an illustrated report on the damage toll so far (see: "Northern California Fires Have Destroyed at Least 5,700 Buildings"). "About 2,800 buildings in Santa Rosa were destroyed," the paper reported. "The Coffey Park neighborhood and Fountaingrove area were among the hardest hit." The San Francisco Chronicle published shocking aerial footage from Santa Rosa, showing street after street of homes reduced to rubble and ash (see: "Drone footage reveals utter devastation to Santa Rosa neighborhood after fires," by Eric Ting).

Local hospitals and clinics were rescheduling routine care in order to prioritize fire-related emergencies. "The Petaluma Health Center canceled all scheduled appointments this week to make time for people requiring urgent care," the Los Angeles Times reported (continuing coverage: "California fires coverage: Fires in Sonoma and Napa counties grow.") "The center has treated asthmatics struggling to breathe amid some of the most unhealthy air in Bay Area history, as well as people who sprained their ankles or forgot to grab their medications as they raced from burning homes in nearby Santa Rosa, clinic chief administrative officer Pedro Toledo said."

The wildfire outbreak's destructiveness is extreme, but it's not random, experts say: the severe damage reflects the confluence of several well-understood causal factors. The Palm Springs Desert Sun had a good overview of the situation (see: "As California grows, so does the risk of living next to wildfire-prone areas," by Corinne S Kennedy, Elizabeth Weise and Alena Maschke). "The wind, with gusts registering up to 79 miles per hour, combined with the late night timing and response are two elements of the fires' deadly pace, but the growth into fire-prone areas has increased the risk of wildfires consuming places where people live and work."

Home construction details are also a factor in the spread of fire, the paper reported. Richard Minnich, Professor of Ecology at the University of California Riverside, told the Desert Sun, "When you see whole neighborhood that burn down, like Coffey Park, it’s because the construction’s bad."

But a closer look reveals that this fire season's lessons will be complicated—and far from clear. Houses that burned obviously had some vulnerability. But houses that survived may have just been lucky, the Washington Post pointed out (see: "California wildfires have been devastatingly arbitrary. Some houses stand amid a sea of ash," by Cleve R. Wootson Jr.). The Post profiles two neighbors in Santa Rosa's Coffey Park who fled the neighborhood at the same time as flames approached. One neighbor's house was burned to the ground, destroying the family's treasured belongings. The other neighbor's house survived as winds shifted, and firefighters arrived to make a stand against the firestorm.