Grim hunt for bodies after California fires
Officials confirmed at least 29 deaths, with 3,500 homes and businesses destroyed
SONOMA, CALIF.— Search-and-rescue teams — some with cadaver dogs — started looking for bodies Thursday in parts of California that were devastated by wildfires, an indication that more dead were almost sure to emerge from the charred ruins of communities consumed by flames.
At least 29 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.
At an afternoon news conference, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano told reporters that a 15th person was found dead in his county as search crews and cadaver dogs began sifting through debris for the first time Thursday.
Later Thursday, officials confirmed the discovery of four more bodies. Of the 29 deaths in total, 15 were in Sonoma County, eight were in Mendocino County, four were in Yuba County and two were in Napa County, according to Sonoma County, Cal Fire and Yuba County officials.
The searches can take hours, and identification will be difficult, Giordano said at the briefing.
“So far, in the recoveries, we have found bodies that were almost completely intact and bodies that were nothing more than ash and bone,” he said, noting that in the latter cases, sometimes the only way to identify someone is through a medical device, like a metal hip replacement, that has an ID number.
“We will do everything in our power to locate all the missing persons, and I promise you we will handle the remains with care and get them returned to their loved ones,” he said.
It could be weeks or even months before all the bodies are identified, he added. Asked whether he expected the death toll to rise, Giordano said, “I’d be unrealistic if I didn’t.”
Winds up to 70 km/h were expected Thursday in areas north of San Francisco, and stronger, more erratic gusts were forecast for Friday. Those conditions could erase modest gains made by firefighters.
“We are not out of this emergency. We are not even close to being out of this emergency,” emergency operations director Mark Ghilarducci told a news conference Thursday.
The ferocious fires that started Sunday levelled entire neighbourhoods in parts of Sonoma and Napa counties.