Fire survivors agonize as death toll increases
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — 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.
“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.
At least 29 people have died and some 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the blazes, which are well on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history. Search-and-rescue teams, some with cadaver dogs, started looking for bodies Thursday.
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said officials were still investigating hundreds of reports of missing people 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.
The 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.
An estimated 25,000 people have been driven from their homes by the fires, officials said.
Firefighters put out a hot spot from a wildfire on Thursday near Calistoga, Calif. Officials estimate that about 25,000 people have been driven from their homes by the wildfires.