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Death Toll Climbs to 21 From Wildfires in Northern California

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Death Toll Climbs to 21 From Wildfires in Northern California

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The deadly wildfires that have ravaged Northern California, killing at least 21 people, caught many residents by surprise, sweeping into their neighborhoods after they had gone to bed and leaving them precious few minutes to escape.

Some evacuated in the nick of time. Others weren't as lucky. And nearly everyone in the region is grappling with near-apocalyptic devastation — homes burned to a crisp, once-idyllic communities turned into ash-covered shells.

"You can see folks' cars parked in their driveways. They didn't even have a chance to get into their cars and drive them away in some cases," said Scott McLean, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. "This was at night. People were asleep, so they were woken and they ... ran for their lives."

Karissa Kruse, who lost her home in the hard-hit Fountaingrove area of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, was awoken by a knock on her door at 2:30 a.m. Monday morning. It was a neighbor, telling her they had to leave immediately.

"We took about 10 minutes to scoop up the cats, grab my ID," Kruse, who is the president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, told NBC News. "You realize how very little anything material means to you when you're in that situation."

As one of the fires rushed toward the sprawling Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa on Sunday evening, staff told guests that they had to get out — immediately. Many guests left behind belongings as they fled.

"The winds picked up phenomenally fast," said Julie Maurer, vice president of marketing for the resort, adding that employees were sent to knock on all guest room doors when the fire came dangerously close to the 350-acre property.

Authorities continued to grapple with containing the 22 firestorms raging simultaneously across the state's wine country, including Napa and Sonoma counties, where fierce winds and months of dry weather helped to kindle the flames.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said at least 115,000 acres had burned so far — about 2½ times the size of Washington, D.C. Firefighters from across California and Nevada were called in as reinforcements.

Related: Wineries at Risk as Wildfires Rage in Northern California

"The fires are still out there, and they are still actively growing," Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said at a news conference.

Two of the larger fires are the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County and the Atlas Peak Fire in Napa County. The Tubbs fire has burned 28,000 acres and the Atlas Peak Fire swelled to over 42,000 acres and was 3 percent contained as of Wednesday afternoon, according to Cal Fire. A fire in Mendocino County has burned 29,500 acres since breaking out Sunday and was 5 percent contained, according to Cal Fire. At least 250 homes have been destroyed in that fire, the agency said.

At least 3,500 homes and commercial structures were destroyed, many in Santa Rosa, a city of more than 167,000, authorities said. Nearly 14,000 customers were without power in the Santa Rosa area because of the fire, downed power lines or other problems, Pacific Gas & Electric said on its website Wednesday afternoon.

Citing worsening fire conditions, authorities Wednesday afternoon issued a mandatory evacuation order for the town of Calistoga in the Napa County, which has a little more than 5,000 residents, according to census data.

"Forecasted conditions have worsened," the Napa County Sheriff's Office said in a statement.

Napa Valley Vintners, the trade association for America's premier wine region, said four wineries "suffered total or very significant losses due to the fire."

At least nine others reported some damage, said the association, which cautioned that it had yet to hear from some wineries in the most vulnerable areas of the valley.

Officials said they were still concerned about safety and urged residents not to try to return home.

Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, visited the Sacramento County Office of Emergency Services to get a read on the situation on Tuesday.

"It is heartbreaking to think that many of the fallen represent our most vulnerable, in some cases senior citizens who were not able to escape the flames that overcame their homes," Pence said.

Among them were Charlie Rippey, 100, a World War II Army veteran, and his 98-year-old wife, Sara, in Napa County. A son, Chuck Rippey, told NBC Bay Area that his parents' caregiver was unable to escort them to safety before the roof caved in.

"All the windows started to explode," Rippey said. "Smoke and heat, all that everywhere. And she just couldn't find them."

The Rippeys, who were originally from Wisconsin, celebrated 75 years of marriage with all five of their children on March 20, an event that was marked at the time by The Napa Valley Register.

Charlie Rippey, a mechanical engineer by trade who turned 100 in July, rose to captain during World II, serving in Europe and North Africa, the newspaper said. Sara Rippey was a homemaker who was devoted to bridge.

Another son, Mike Rippey, told The Associated Press from London that he and his brothers and sisters didn't believe either of their parents could have soldiered on without the other.

"We knew there's no way they would ever be happy, whoever was the last one," said Rippey, who was making preparations to fly to Napa. "So they went together, and that's the way it worked."

Image: Santa Rosa, Calif., fire

John Bailey, an associate professor of forest engineering, resources and management at Oregon State University, said a perfect storm allowed the intense blazes to ravage Northern California.

Photos: Massive Wildfires Consume Homes Across Northern California

"Hot, dry conditions, and then throwing in winds, really expands burnability," he said, adding: "We just have an unprecedented amount of fuel on our landscapes."

Collectively, the fires are among the deadliest in the state's history. The last single fire to kill as many people was San Diego County's Cedar Fire in October 2003, which destroyed 2,200 homes and was started accidentally by a hunter.

Authorities said it's too soon to know how the new blazes started. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to the state's request for federal funds to help with the recovery.

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