Hun­dreds still miss­ing as fire toll mounts

Taranaki Daily News - - World -

"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.’’ –

PHOTOS: REUTERS

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.

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