Death toll rises in dev­as­tat­ing Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires, as re­spon­ders fight blaze and con­tinue their grim search for vic­tims.

Winds quiet to give fire­fight­ers a brief break as death toll from wild­fires grows

Calgary Sun - - NEWS - Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Kris­tine Phillips, Joel Achen­bach And Herman Wong

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The winds fan­ning wild­fires in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s wine-coun­try have calmed, for now, giv­ing fire­fight­ers a badly needed break from the “red flag” con­di­tions that have made this men­ac­ing arc of flames so deadly and de­struc­tive.

But for lo­cal­i­ties fac­ing re­lent­less fires and a mount­ing death toll that has al­ready reached his­tor­i­cally grim heights, any re­prieve ap­pears re­mote.

As the de­struc­tion en­tered its fifth day, of­fi­cials fo­cused their ef­forts on find­ing the miss­ing and the dead. Au­thor­i­ties con­tinue to search for the hun­dreds of peo­ple who re­main un­ac­counted for, us­ing ca­daver dogs to sniff through scorched rub­ble.

Twenty-nine peo­ple have died, more than half of them in Sonoma County alone. The in­fer­nos burn­ing across the re­gion are now the state’s dead­li­est wild­fires on record, their col­lec­tive death toll equal­ing the 1933 Grif­fith Park Fire in Los An­ge­les that killed 29 peo­ple.

“We’ve found bodies that were al­most com­pletely in­tact; we’ve found bodies that are noth­ing more than ashes and bones,” Sonoma County Sher­iff Robert Gior­dano said at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day.

In some cases, bodies were only iden­ti­fied through ID cards or the se­rial num­ber of med­i­cal de­vices found nearby.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you that, but that is what we’re faced here, as far as iden­ti­fy­ing peo­ple and re­cov­er­ing peo­ple,” Gior­dano said. “We will do ev­ery­thing in our power to lo­cate all the miss­ing peo­ple. I prom­ise you we will han­dle the re­mains with care and get them to their loved ones.”

As search and res­cue teams gain ac­cess to “hot zones” that were im­mo­lated in the firestorm, of­fi­cials ex­pect to con­firm more fa­tal­i­ties.

The death toll in Sonoma County went up to 15 on Thurs­day, and Gior­dano said it would be “un­re­al­is­tic” to think it won’t rise fur­ther. There were eight ca­su­al­ties recorded in Men­do­cino County, four in Yuba County and two in Napa County, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal and state of­fi­cials.

About 1,000 peo­ple have been re­ported miss­ing in Sonoma County, of whom 400 re­mained un­ac­counted for as of Thurs­day af­ter­noon. Gior­dano said search and res­cue teams go to spe­cific houses, if it’s safe, to find miss­ing per­sons only af­ter they’ve ex­hausted other ways to con­tact them.

“We’re go­ing to that per­son’s house in the fire zone. We’re do­ing tar­geted searches . . . teams of peo­ple search­ing for miss­ing peo­ple,” Gior­dano said. “That’s how the ma­jor­ity of the re­cov­ery has been made so far.”

The 21 fires cur­rently burn­ing across the north­ern part of the state have de­stroyed more than 3,500 build­ings and torched more than 191,000 acres — a col­lec­tive area nearly the size of New York City.

It is, the state’s fire chief said, “a se­ri­ous, crit­i­cal, cat­a­strophic event.”

Thou­sands have fled their homes. In Sonoma County, nearly 4,000 peo­ple are at two dozen evac­u­a­tion cen­tres. Many will likely be un­able to re­turn home for days, of­fi­cials said. Evac­u­a­tion zones con­tinue to ex­pand. Wed­nes­day, the en­tire city of Cal­is­toga in Napa County was evac­u­ated.

“Th­ese fires are a long way from be­ing con­tained, so we’re do­ing to best we can peo­ple that have been dis­placed and help them to hope­fully re­build their lives” said Barry Du­gan, a Sonoma County spokesman.

Nine fires are now burn­ing in Sonoma and Napa coun­ties, the heart of Cal­i­for­nia’s wine-grow­ing in­dus­try. One of the big­gest and by far the dead­li­est, the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma grew about 6,000 acres overnight be­fore con­di­tions be­gan to im­prove.

The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice said the calmer winds will last through Fri­day, giv­ing fire crews a slim chance against blazes that have mostly raged un­con­trolled. But dry con­di­tions, cou­pled with a new round of high winds ex­pected this week­end, could fur­ther ham­per con­tain­ment ef­forts.

In many ar­eas, crews have been work­ing for days straight.

Keith Muel­heim, Mike Stor­netta and Ja­son Jones, fire­fight­ers in the town of Wind­sor in Sonoma County, es­ti­mated that they had been awake for more than 70 hours and did not eat for the first 16.

For them, the Tubbs Fire is a per­sonal one.

Stor­netta’s par­ents lost their house of 30 years, the house where he grew up, as a firestorm swept through their Santa Rosa neigh­bour­hood ear­lier this week.

JEFF ChiU/AP JoSh EDElSoN/AFP/GeTTy Im­AGes

A Cal Fire fire­fighter works on hot spots on a hill in the Oak­mont area of Santa Rosa, Calif., Thurs­day. In­set, Char­lie and Kate Higgins com­fort each other in front of their burned home in the same com­mu­nity.

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