Fire sur­vivors ag­o­nize as death toll mounts

Dead­li­est week of wild­fires in state’s his­tory

National Post (Latest Edition) - - WORLD - Jonathan Cooper, Ell Knickm en eyer Jo­ce­lyn Geck and er

• 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!”

JOSH EDELSON / AFP / GETTY IM­AGES

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.

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