By Nicole Chavez

CALIFORNIA (CBS/CNN/AP) — Authorities say some of the most destructive wildfires in California’s history have killed 23 people.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Chief Ken Pimlott gave an updated death toll Wednesday, calling the series of wildfires in wine country “a serious, critical, catastrophic event.”

He says 8,000 firefighters are focusing on protecting lives and property as they battle the flames chewing through critically dry vegetation.

Most of the fires were ignited Sunday, driven by winds of more than 50 mph and dry conditions. With no rain in the forecast this week and a chance of gusts of 35 to 40 mph on Wednesday, forecasters say the weather will create challenges for firefighters.

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More than 20,000 people had been ordered to evacuate as of Tuesday night and authorities were encouraging others to pack “ready-to-go bags” with documents and medicines, in case they had to flee the fast-spreading flames on a moment’s notice.

“I think it would be one of the worst disasters in California history,” Captain Mike Palacio with the California Highway Patrol said at a community meeting. “You gotta be patient. We are just trying to keep people alive.”

Wildfires have burned more than 122,000 acres in California. The largest fires were burning in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, filling the picturesque landscape of the state’s wine country with charred rubble and clouds of smoke.

Lilly Biagini, 9,  and her mom were away from their Santa Rosa home Sunday night before the fire broke out. They weren’t able to return.

The fire destroyed Lilly’s home. Her prosthetic legs were inside.

“I lost my legs, I lost everything,” said Lilly. “They’re really important to me, they’re a lot of money.”

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The White House said President Donald Trump has signed a major disaster declaration and fire management assistance grants for the state.

“The loss of homes and burning of precious land is heartbreaking, but the loss of life is truly devastating,” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said.

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Two of those who died were in Napa County, county spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said. Charles Rippey, 100, and his wife, Sara, 98, died when a fire engulfed their home near the Silverado Country Club north of Napa, Jourdan said.

More than 100 people were being treated at Napa- and Sonoma-area hospitals for fire-related injuries or health issues, including burns, smoke inhalation and shortness of breath.

Scores missing

Families are frantically searching for more than 180 people who have been reported missing. Authorities believe communications issues are preventing many of those people from checking in with family.

Cathy Riordan is looking for her 28-year-old niece, Christina Hanson. Christina, who uses a wheelchair, lives in an apartment next to her father’s house in Santa Rosa, California. The family hasn’t heard from Christina since early Tuesday.

Her father, Michael Hanson, somehow made it to a hospital after suffering third-degree burns on over half his body. The family believes Christina’s father may know what happened to her, but he’s in a medically induced coma.

“I’ve called every hospital in the area,” Riordan said. “I’ve called all of the shelters. I’ve called everybody that would take my call. I’ve called everywhere I can think.”

“It looked like we were at war”

The biggest blaze, the Tubbs fire, has reduced cars and homes into burnt piles of ash and rubble in Santa Rosa, a city of about 175,000 roughly 50 miles northwest of San Francisco.

The fire has burned 27,000 acres and destroyed at least 571 structures, Cal Fire said Tuesday, making it one of the top 15 most destructive fires in recorded California history.

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A large part of Santa Rosa was evacuated, including the Kaiser Permanente Hospital and Sutter Hospital, where patients emerged from the hospital with protective masks, some using walkers or wheelchairs.

The only thing that remained of Margaret Curzon’s house was a concrete statue of the Virgin Mary. She and her parents lost almost everything when the wildfire destroyed their home.

Her mom woke up early Monday morning and smelled smoke, but thought it was the neighbor’s barbecue or chimney, so she went back to sleep. They woke up again because their bichon frise dog, Brady, was whimpering.

Her father looked outside and his first thought was that there was some sort of bomb, or an attack.

“It looked like we were at war,” Curzon said. “The sky was orange and there were embers falling from the sky.”

(TM and © Copyright 2017 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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