Authorities said that at least 11 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.
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.
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.