California Wildfires: Death Toll Rises to 23, 'Worst Air Quality Ever Recorded' in Bay Area

Firefighters continue to battle the unprecedented wildfires ravaging Northern California.

As of Wednesday, the fast-moving blazes—aided by high winds and low humidity—have burned nearly 170,000 acres and destroyed at least 3,500 homes and commercial structures since the outbreak started Sunday.

The confirmed death toll has risen to 23, with 285 reported missing. Thousands have been forced to flee due to mandatory evacuations.

A forecast of of high winds on Thursday could deteriorate conditions.

"We're not going to be out of the woods for a great many days to come," Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott said at a news conference yesterday.

California's drought-busting rains from last winter led to "explosive vegetation," as Pimlott said, and a hot and dry summer left the brush and other vegetation tinder-dry, stoking the flames.

While the cause of the infernos has yet to be determined, some scientists have said that climate change may play a role.

"It's very clear that the increasingly hot summers are the product of climate change," Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NBC News.

Alex Hall, a climate researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, also told the New York Times that global warming may at least be making the winds drier.

"That is a pretty key parameter for fire risk," he said.

The region's main utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, has acknowledged that gale-force winds downed some of their power lines.

"These destructive winds, along with millions of trees weakened by years of drought and recent renewed vegetation growth from winter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay," company spokesman Matt Nauman told the Mercury News.

"In some cases, we have found instances of wires down, broken poles and impacted infrastructure. Where those have occurred, we have reported them to the CPUC and CalFire. Our thoughts are with all those individuals who were impacted by these devastating wildfires."

The wine country fires have released devastating air pollution.

"We are reporting the worst air quality ever recorded for smoke in many parts of the Bay Area," Tom Flannigan, a spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told the East Bay Times. "This is similar to what you see in Beijing, China in bad air days there."

The air pollution could even equal a year's worth of traffic, Sean Raffuse, an air-quality analyst at the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at University of California in Davis, said. Raffuse estimates the fires have produced about 10,000 tons of fine particulate matter, about the same amount generated by the state's 35 million vehicles.

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the affected areas as well as for Orange County in the southern part of the state.

The National Weather Service has also issued Red Flag Warnings, the highest alert, for much of Northern California.

Fire Weather Warnings/Watches

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