Hundreds still missing as fire toll mounts
"We've found bodies that were almost completely intact; we've found bodies that are nothing more than ashes and bones." Robert Giordano, Sonoma County Sheriff
UNITED STATES: The winds fanning wildfires in Northern California’s wine country have calmed, for now, giving firefighters a badly needed break from the ‘‘red flag’’ conditions that have made this menacing arc of flames so deadly and destructive.
But for localities facing relentless fires and a mounting death toll that has already reached historically grim heights, any reprieve appears remote.
As the destruction entered its fifth day, officials focused their efforts on finding the missing and the dead. Authorities continue to search for the hundreds of people who remain unaccounted for, using cadaver dogs to sniff through scorched rubble.
Thirty-one people have died, more than half of them in Sonoma County. The infernos burning across the region are now the state’s deadliest wildfires on record, their collective death toll surpassing the 1933 Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles that killed 29 people.
‘‘We’ve found bodies that were almost completely intact; we’ve found bodies that are nothing more than ashes and bones,’’ Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said yesterday.
In some cases, bodies were only identified through ID cards or the serial number of medical devices found nearby.
‘‘I’m sorry to have to tell you that, but that is what we’re faced here, as far as identifying people and recovering people,’’ Giordano said.
‘‘We will do everything in our power to locate all the missing people. I promise you we will handle the remains with care and get them to their loved ones.’’
As search and rescue teams gain access to ‘‘hot zones’’ that were immolated in the firestorm, officials expect to confirm more fatalities.
The death toll in Sonoma County went up to 15 yesterday, and Giordano said it would be ‘‘unrealistic’’ to think it won’t rise further. There were eight casualties recorded in Mendocino County, four in Yuba County and two in Napa County.
About 1000 people have been reported missing in Sonoma County, of whom 400 remained unaccounted for as of yesterday. Giordano said search and rescue teams go to specific houses, if it’s safe, to find missing persons only after they’ve exhausted other ways to contact them.
‘‘We’re going to that person’s house in the fire zone. We’re doing targeted searches . . . teams of people searching for missing people,’’ Giordano said. ‘‘That’s how the majority of the recovery has been made so far.’’
The 21 fires burning across the northern part of the state have destroyed more than 3500 buildings and torched more than 75,000 hectares.
It is, the state’s fire chief said, ‘‘a serious, critical, catastrophic event.’’
Thousands have fled their homes. In Sonoma County, nearly 4000 people are at two dozen evacuation centres. Many of them will likely be unable to return home for many days, officials said. Evacuation zones also continue to expand. On Thursday, the entire city of Calistoga in Napa County was evacuated.
‘‘These fires are a long way from being contained, so we’re doing as best we can to help people that have been displaced and help them to hopefully rebuild their lives,’’ said Barry Dugan, a Sonoma County spokesman.
Nine fires are now burning in Sonoma and Napa counties, the heart of California’s wine-growing industry. One of the biggest and by far the deadliest, the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma grew about 2400ha overnight before conditions began to improve.
The National Weather Service said the calmer winds will last through today, giving fire crews a slim chance against the blazes that have mostly raged uncontrolled. But dry conditions, coupled with a new round of high winds expected this weekend, could further hamper containment efforts, officials said.
In many areas, crews 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.
For them, the Tubbs Fire is a personal one.
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.
‘‘Our first assignment was two blocks away,’’ he said during a patrol. ‘‘While we were evacuating an elderly care facility home, we could see down into the glow of the neighbourhood where I knew my parents lived.’’
His parents were not home, Stornetta said, but his grandmother was housesitting and just barely escaped. His family lost everything, except the clothes they were wearing.
For Captain Greg McCollum, of the Santa Rosa Fire Department, the sheer size and power of the Tubbs Fire has humbled him after 24 years on the job.
‘‘This is a once-in-a-career fire,’’ he said. ‘‘One of the other guys said it’s a once-in-two-careers fire. Well, I’m no historian, but I know a damn big fire when I see one.’’
As thousands of firefighters work to contain the blazes, officials have started looking at what’s ahead: Cleaning up the charred remains of thousands of structures, some of which could contain potentially hazardous materials.
‘‘You can imagine what it’s going to take,’’ said Dugan. ‘‘You just take one area in Santa Rosa, the Coffey Park area. There’s dozens if not hundreds of [destroyed] homes. That’s a lot of cleanup and a lot of debris. Once the fire is under control, there’ll still be a lot of work to do.’’
He added: ‘‘This is going to be months and years of recovery for the county.’’ –
Firefighters work, left, to contain the Tubbs wildfire outside Calistoga, California, while an aerial photo shows the damage in Santa Rosa. The infernos burning across the region are now the state’s deadliest wildfires on record.