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At least 11 dead as fires rage in California

Jim Stites watches part of his neighbourhood burn in Fountaingrove, California PICTURE: Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP
Jeff Chiu and Ellen Knickmeyer

AN ONSLAUGHT of wildfires across a wide stretch of northern California has swallowed up properties from wineries to trailer parks and ripped through tiny rural towns and urban areas.

Authorities said that at least 10 people are dead, with 100 injured, and as many as 1,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed. All three figures are expected to surge in the coming days as more information is reported.

Taken as a group, the fires are already among the deadliest in California history.

Some of the largest of the 14 blazes burning over a 200-mile region were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. They sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 60 miles away.

Sonoma County said it has received more than 100 missing-person reports as family and friends scramble to locate loved ones.

Much of the damage was in Santa Rosa, a far larger and more developed city than usually finds itself at the mercy of a wildfire. The city is home to 175,000 residents, including the wine-country wealthy and the working class.

The flames were unforgiving to both groups. Hundreds of homes of all sizes were levelled by flames so hot they melted the glass in cars and turned aluminium wheels into liquid.

Former San Francisco Giants pitcher Noah Lowry, who runs an outdoor sporting goods store in Santa Rosa, was forced to flee in minutes with his wife, two daughters and a son just over two weeks old.

"I can't shake hearing people scream in terror as the flames barrelled down on us," Lowry said.

The ferocity of the flames forced authorities to focus primarily on getting people out safely, even if it meant abandoning structures to the fire.

Firefighters rushed to a state home for the severely disabled when flames reached one side of the centre's sprawling campus in the historic Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen.

Crews got the more than 200 people out of the threatened buildings, one firefighter said, as flames closed within a few dozen feet.

Fires from ruptured gas lines dotted the smoky landscapes of blackened Santa Rosa hillsides. Fire trucks raced by smouldering roadside landscaping in search of higher priorities.

The flames were fickle in some corners of the city. One hillside home remained unscathed while a dozen surrounding it were destroyed.

A large majority of the injured were treated for smoke inhalation, according to St Joseph Health, which operates hospitals in the Santa Rosa area. Two were in critical condition and one was in serious condition.

October has generally been the most destructive time of year for California wildfires. What was unusual on Sunday was to have so many fires take off at the same time.

Other than the windy conditions that helped drive them all, there was no known connection between the fires, and no cause has been released for any of them.

The conditions late Monday and early Tuesday were calmer than they were 24 hours earlier, bringing hopes of progress against the flames.

Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the fire areas, and asked the federal government to do the same.

Vice president Mike Pence, who was visiting California, said at an event near Sacramento that the federal government stands with California as it takes on the blazes, but made no specific promises.

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