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
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.
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.