Bodies? ‘Just a pile of ash and bone’
Crews try to count the dead as wine country fires rage
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. “This is a serious, critical, catastrophic event,” Pimlott added later.
Cal Fire forester Kim Sone inspects damage at homes destroyed by fires in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Thursday.