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Faces of the fire: families scramble as California burns

SANTA ROSA, Ca -- The death toll continues to rise in the widespread Northern California wildfires.

As of Wednesday morning, 17 people had died and more than 2,000 homes and buildings had burned as hundreds of firefighters battle the blaze and keep thousands of people away from danger.

Most of the fires were ignited Sunday, driven by winds of more than 50 mph and dry conditions.

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.

Many families barely made it out of their homes before they burned to the ground.

Molly and Joe Bjornstrom, along with their five children, received a call from a friend in the middle of the night, grabbing only a few items as they rushed out the door.

They made it to safety, escaping the blaze that grew from 200 to 20,000 acres in a matter of hours.

Their home and Santa Rose neighborhood have been destroyed.

The young family, who home-school their children ages 7, 5 (twins), 3 and 1, have lost all of their belongings, as well as their school.

The Bjornstroms are staying with friends and family in the Sacramento area, scrambling to gather basic necessities.

Some have donated clothes, one family friend gave the kids playful Pottery Barn suitcases to raise their spirits and others are offering much-need money for short-term expenses through the website, Plumfund.

In a Facebook post, mother Molly Bjornstrom wrote, "God is good- even in the midst of chaos. Thank you to EVERYONE for the prayers, love, generous help and support during this time."

Meanwhile, other families are frantically searching for more than 180 people who have been reported missing.

"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."

If you'd like to help, an account has been set up for the Bjornstrom family and a list of GoFundMe pages raising money has been compiled here.

The Red Cross is seeking volunteers and donations.

You can give online at www.redcross.org/donate/donation, call 800-RED-CROSS or text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10.