Bodies? Just a pile of ash and bone

Crews try to count the dead as fires rage in wine coun­try

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - ELLEN KNICKMEYER AND JO­CE­LYN GECKER SONOMA, CALIF. —

Search-an­dres­cue teams, some with ca­daver dogs, started look­ing for bodies Thurs­day in parts of Cal­i­for­nia wine coun­try dev­as­tated by wild­fires.

Au­thor­i­ties warned more dead were al­most sure to emerge from the charred ru­ins.

At least 24 peo­ple have died and at least 3,500 homes and busi­nesses have been de­stroyed by the blazes, which were well on their way to be­com­ing the dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

Sonoma County Sher­iff Robert Gior­dano said of­fi­cials were still in­ves­ti­gat­ing hun­dreds of re­ports of miss­ing peo­ple and re­cov­ery teams would soon be­gin con­duct­ing “tar­geted searches” for spe­cific res­i­dents at their last known ad­dresses.

“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.

Winds up to 72 km/h were ex­pected Thurs­day in ar­eas north of San Fran­cisco. Those con­di­tions could erase mod­est gains made by fire­fight­ers.

“It’s go­ing to con­tinue to get worse be­fore it gets bet­ter,” state Fire Chief Ken Pim­lott 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.

Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple have been driven from their homes by the flames.

A few left be­hind cook­ies for fire­fight­ers and signs read­ing, “Please save our home!”

In Cal­is­toga, a his­toric re­sort town known for wine tast­ings and hot springs, 5,300 peo­ple were un­der evac­u­a­tion or­ders.

The 22 fires, many out of con­trol, spanned more than 686 square kilo­me­tres as the in­ferno en­tered its fourth day. Strate­gic at­tacks that have curbed de­struc­tion and death tolls in re­cent years have not worked against the fe­roc­ity of the blazes.

Of­fi­cials were con­cerned that the many sep­a­rate blazes would merge into larger in­fer­nos.

“We are lit­er­ally look­ing at ex­plo­sive veg­e­ta­tion,” Pim­lott said.

“Make no mis­take,” he added later, “this is a se­ri­ous, crit­i­cal, cat­a­strophic event.”

Of­fi­cials say fire crews have made some progress on the dead­li­est fire in Sonoma County, bring­ing con­tain­ment to 10 per cent.

The ash rained down on Sonoma Val­ley, cover­ing wind­shields, as winds picked up.

Count­less emer­gency ve­hi­cles hur­ried to­ward the flames, sirens blar­ing, as evac­uees sped away af­ter jam­ming posses­sions into their cars and filling their gas tanks.

Of­fi­cials said 8,000 fire­fight­ers and other per­son­nel were bat­tling the blazes, with more re­sources pour­ing in from Ari­zona, Ne­vada, Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon.

He­li­copters and air tankers as­sisted thou­sands of fire­fight­ers who were try­ing to beat back the flames.

Un­til now, the ef­forts have fo­cused on “life safety” rather than ex­tin­guish­ing the blazes, partly be­cause the flames were shift­ing with winds and tar­get­ing com­mu­ni­ties with­out warn­ing.

Fires were “burn­ing faster than fire­fight­ers can run, in some sit­u­a­tions,” Emer­gency Op­er­a­tions Di­rec­tor Mark Ghi­lar­ducci said.

In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, cooler weather and moist ocean air helped fire­fight­ers gain ground against a wild­fire that has scorched nearly 36 sq. kilo­me­tres.

Or­ange County fire of­fi­cials said the blaze was 60 per cent con­tained.

JEFF CHIU, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cal Fire forester Kim Sone in­spects the bleak re­mains of homes de­stroyed by fires in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Thurs­day.

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