Fire survivors agonize as death toll mounts
Deadliest week of wildfires in state’s history
• As his house filled with smoke from one of California’s devastating wine country fires, Ryan Nelson’s thoughts went to his elderly neighbours.
He ran over and pounded on their doors and windows but wasn’t able to get their attention. Now he fears they didn’t make it out and wonders whether he could have done more to help.
“We’re in the middle of the city, so that’s never crossed anybody’s mind here in terms of everything being a total fire loss,” Nelson said. “That’s why I didn’t kick his door in. I just thought I’d come back to the house.”
Nelson was in his neighbourhood on Wednesday going through the ruins of his house. His neighbours’ home was also a total loss.
Nelson knows the man only as Manjeet and said he has never met or seen his wife, who had multiple sclerosis. Manjeet, who was in his 70s, has no car and is fairly “reclusive,” Nelson said.
“My regret isn’ t doing more to try to save anything, it was more I feel like I could’ve forced entry into their house and pulled them out of bed or done something more to help him get out,” Nelson said.
Eight new deaths confirmed Thursday took the toll to 31, making this the deadliest week of wildfires in California history. Some 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the blazes. Most of the fires, and the deaths, were in the coastal region north of San Francisco that encompasses wine country. Four deaths came further inland in Yuba County.
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said officials were still investigating hundreds of reports of missing people — perhaps including Nelson’s elderly neighbours — and that recovery teams would soon begin conducting “targeted searches” for specific residents at their last known addresses.
About 900 people were first reported missing in Sonoma County, of whom about 460 remained unaccounted for as of Thursday morning.
“We have found bodies almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones,” the sheriff said.
Some remains have been identified using medical devices that turned up in the scorched heaps that were once homes.
“There have been IDs in this case, in a pile of ash and bone, where there was a piece of metal left from somebody’s surgery, like a hip replacement, with an ID number that helped us identify the person,” he said.
More than 8,000 firefighters were battling the blazes and more manpower and equipment was pouring in from across the country and from as far as Australia and Canada, officials said.
The ferocious fires that started Sunday levelled entire neighbourhoods in parts of Sonoma and Napa counties. In anticipation of the next round of flames, entire cities evacuated, leaving their streets empty, with the only motion coming from ashes falling like snowflakes.
In many areas, crews who also are fire victims, 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. 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.
An esti mated 25,000 people have been driven from their homes by the flames, officials said. A few left behind cookies for firefighters and signs reading, “Please save our home!”
Chimneys are all that remain standing Thursday amid a swath of burned out properties in Santa Rosa, Calif. Wildfires have killed a least 31 people.