The flames that raced across California wine country left little more than smouldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. House after house is gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark sites that were once family homes.

The wildfires burned so hot that windows and tire rims melted off cars, leaving many vehicles resting on their steel axles. In one driveway, the glass backboard of a basketball hoop melted, dripped and solidified like a mangled icicle.

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Homeowner Martha Marquez looks over the remains of her home in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Tuesday. Around 2,000 homes and business have been destroyed. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Newly homeless residents of Northern California took stock of their shattered lives Tuesday while the blazes that have killed at least 17 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses kept burning. Hundreds more firefighters joined the battle against the uncontained flames.

"This is just pure devastation, and it's going to take us a while to get out and comb through all of this," said Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He said the state had "several days of fire weather conditions to come."

Almost 200 injured, almost 200 missing

The wildfires already rank among the five deadliest in California history, and officials expected the death toll to increase as the scope of destruction becomes clear. At least 185 people were injured during the blazes that started Sunday night. Nearly 200 people were reported missing in Sonoma County alone.

Seventeen wildfires raged Tuesday across parts of seven counties. Fire crews and other resources were being rushed in from other parts of the state and Nevada.

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More than 240 members of the California National Guard helped ferry fuel to first responders because so many gas stations were without power. Guard members were also helping with medical evacuations and security at evacuation centres, said Maj. Gen. David Baldwin.

In addition to knocking out electricity, the blazes damaged or destroyed 77 cellular sites, disrupting communication services that officials were rushing to restore, said emergency operations director Mark Ghilarducci.

Thousands forced to flee

The fires that started Sunday night moved so quickly that thousands of people were forced to flee with very little warning. Some did not get out in time.

"It's literally like it exploded. These people ran out of their homes literally with minutes notice, barely with the clothes on their back," Pimlott said, adding that authorities didn't have time to give more notice. "They burned so quickly, there was not time to notify everybody."

Among the victims were 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his wife, Sara, who was 98. The couple was married for 75 years and lived at the Silverado Resort in Napa.

Their son, Mike Rippey, said he and his siblings couldn't imagine how either parent would have navigated life if just one had survived the flames.

"We knew there's no way they would ever be happy, whoever was the last one. So they went together, and that's the way it worked," he said stoically.

Residents warned not to return

A thick, smoky haze cloaked much of Napa and Sonoma counties, where neighbourhoods hit by the fires were completely levelled. Authorities warned residents not to return to their houses for safety reasons, citing the risk of exposed electrical and gas lines and unstable structures including trees.

About 3,200 people were staying in 28 shelters across Napa and Sonoma counties.

California wildfires, 1700, Oct. 10, 2017

The wildfires were active in the 24 hours prior to 5:00 p.m. ET, Monday.

"I don't know how long I'm going to be here, or what's happening at home," said Santa Rosa evacuee Kathy Ruiz, who had found her way to a centre at Sonoma County Fairgrounds. "That's what I'm starting to think about now, am I going to have a home to go back to?"

In the Santa Rosa suburb known as Coffey Park, Robyn Pellegrini let out a cry of grief as she approached the smouldering ruins of the duplex she had shared with her husband and their 6-year-old son. Daniel Pellegrini held his wife before they went searching for something they could salvage for their child.

'You lost a part of your life'

With bare hands, they sifted through the remains of the exterior wall, which had collapsed into dust inside the house and covered all the other debris in their boy's room. They found a stuffed animal — charred but still recognizable as a turtle. Robyn Pellegrini let out joyful gasps when they found pieces of his rock collection.

A young boy across the street, whose home was spared, brought over one of his own stuffed animals to share.

"You lose all your photos," said Tony Pellegrini, Daniel's father. "You feel like you lost a part of your life."

Officials hoped cooler weather and lighter winds would help crews get a handle on the fires.

Government declares disaster

"The weather has been working in our favour, but it doesn't mean it will stay that way," said Brad Alexander, a spokesperson of the governor's Office of Emergency Services.

In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump said he spoke with Gov. Jerry Brown to "let him know that the federal government will stand with the people of California. And we will be there for you in this time of terrible tragedy and need."

APTOPIX California Wildfires

A Napa County firefighter sprays water on a home on Monday in Napa. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

A fire in northeastern Orange County threatened thousands of homes Monday, turned the sky over Disneyland a hazy orange and rained ash on neighbourhoods.

By Tuesday evening, however, winds had died and temperatures were cooler. Most evacuations were lifted in Anaheim, Orange and Tustin, with just a few roads still off-limits.

Wine country

Crews managed to stop the fire from growing and had surrounded more than a quarter of the fire area.

However, fire engines were still protecting neighbourhoods around the clock.

California Wildfires

Smoke rises as a wildfire burns in the hills east of Napa, Calif., on Monday. (Michael Short/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

"We can't afford to let one spark, one ember get into any of these homes," Orange County fire Capt. Larry Kurtz said.

Some of the largest blazes in Northern California were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. The fires sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 96 kilometres away.

Missing-persons hotline

Sonoma County established a hotline to help families looking for missing loved ones. It's possible that many of the people reported missing were safe but simply could not be reached because of the widespread loss of cellphone service and other communications.

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A woman flees with a horse as strong Santa Ana winds blow fire and smoke from the Canyon 2 Fire toward them on Monday in Orange, Calif. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

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 people, including wine-country wealthy and the working class.

It was unusual for so many fires to take off at the same time. Other than the windy conditions that helped drive them all, there was no known connection between the blazes, and authorities have not cited a cause for any of them.

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