Grim search as fires con­tinue to grow

With hun­dreds re­ported miss­ing, the toll in Cal­i­for­nia looks set to rise, write Ellen Knick­meyer and Jo­ce­lyn Gecker

Weekend Herald - - WORLD -

eams with ca­daver dogs yes­ter­day be­gan a grim search for more dead in parts of Cal­i­for­nia wine coun­try dev­as­tated by wild­fires, re­sort­ing in some cases to se­rial num­bers stamped on med­i­cal im­plants to iden­tify re­mains that turned up in the charred ru­ins.

New deaths con­firmed yes­ter­day took the toll to 31, mak­ing this the dead­li­est week of wild­fires in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

Many of the flames still burned out of con­trol, and the fires grew to more than 770sq km, an area as large as New York City.

Sonoma and Napa coun­ties en­dured a fourth day of chok­ing smoke while many res­i­dents fled to shel­ters or camped out on beaches to await word on their homes and loved ones.

Gusty winds and dry air were fore­cast, threat­en­ing to fan the fires fur­ther.

Some of the state’s most his­toric tourist sites, in­clud­ing Sonoma city and Cal­is­toga in Napa Val­ley, were ghost towns pop­u­lated only by fire crews try­ing to stop the ad­vanc­ing in­fer­nos.

Cal­is­toga, known for wine tast­ings and hot springs, had dozens of fire­fight­ers staged at street cor­ners. Ash rained down from the sky and a thick haze cov­ered the ground. Mayor Chris Can­ning warned that the fires were draw­ing closer and all of the city’s 5000 res­i­dents needed to heed an evac­u­a­tion or­der.

“This is a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion. Your pres­ence in Cal­is­toga is not wel­come if you are not a first re­spon­der,” Can­ning said dur­ing a news brief­ing, ex­plain­ing that fire­fight­ers needed to fo­cus on the blazes and had no time to save peo­ple.

A few res­i­dents left be­hind cook­ies for fire crews with signs read­ing: “Please save our home!”

Sonoma County Sher­iff Robert Gior­dano said of­fi­cials were still in­ves­ti­gat­ing hun­dreds of re­ports of miss­ing peo­ple and that re­cov­ery teams would 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 ident- ified us­ing med­i­cal de­vices un­cov­ered in the scorched heaps that were once homes. Me­tal im­plants, such as ar­ti­fi­cial hips, have ID num­bers that helped put names to vic­tims, he said.

The eight new deaths con­firmed yes­ter­day brought the to­tal to 31.

Most of the fires, and the deaths, were in the coastal re­gion north of San Fran­cisco that en­com­passes wine coun­try.

Four deaths came fur­ther in­land in Yuba County.

While the Oak­land Hills fire of 1991 killed 25 peo­ple by it­self and the Grif­fith Park fire in Los An­ge­les in 1933 killed 29, never in recorded state his­tory have so many peo­ple been killed by a si­mul­ta­ne­ous se­ries of fires, said Daniel Ber­lant, a deputy di­rec­tor with the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion.

Fire­fight­ers had re­ported mod­est gains against the blazes, but con­tain­ment seemed nowhere in sight.

“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.

More than 8000 fire­fight­ers were bat­tling the blazes, and more man­power and equip­ment was pour­ing in from around the coun­try and from as far away as Aus­tralia, of­fi­cials said.

Since ig­nit­ing on Mon­day in spots across eight coun­ties, the fires have trans­formed many neigh­bour­hoods into waste­lands. At least 3500 homes and busi­nesses have been de­stroyed and an es­ti­mated 25,000 peo­ple forced to flee.

The wild­fires con­tin­ued to grow in size. A to­tal count of 22 fires on Thurs­day fell to 21 yes­ter­day be­cause two large fires merged, said state Fire Chief Ken Pim­lott.

The chal­lenge of fight­ing the fires was com­pounded by the need for more help and the grow­ing fa­tigue of fire­fight­ers who have been work­ing for days.

“We have peo­ple that have been on that fire for three days who don’t want to leave,” said Cal Fire’s deputy in­ci­dent com­man­der in Napa, Barry Bier­mann. “At some point, you hit a road block.”

Fire of­fi­cials were in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether downed power lines or other util­ity fail­ures could have sparked the fires. It’s un­clear if downed lines and live wires re­sulted from the fires or started them, said Janet Up­ton, a spokes­woman for Cal Fire.

Hun­dreds of evac­uees fled to beaches far to the north of the fires, some sleep­ing on the sand on the first night of the blazes.

Since then, au­thor­i­ties have brought tents and sleep­ing bags and opened pub­lic build­ings and restau­rants to house peo­ple seek­ing refuge in the safety and clean air of the coastal com­mu­nity of Bodega Bay.

Lo­cal char­i­ties and res­i­dents went to Costco to buy sup­plies for the flee­ing fam­i­lies. Cal­i­for­nia High­way Pa­trol Of­fi­cer Quintin Shawk took rel­a­tives and other evac­uees into his home and of­fice, as did many oth­ers.

“It’s like a refugee camp,” at his of­fice, Shawk said.

Com­mu­nity mem­bers fed break­fast to some 200 peo­ple on the beach alone, and Pa­tri­cia Gino­chio, who owns a restau­rant, opened the eatery for 300 more to sleep, she said. The evac­uees’ ar­rival was her­alded by a long line of head­lights head­ing to beaches.

“The kids were scared,” Gino­chio said, adding that tem­per­a­tures by the beach drop dra­mat­i­cally at night. “They were shiv­er­ing and freez­ing.”

Some lucky evac­uees re­turned to find what they least ex­pected.

Anna Brooner was pre­pared to find rub­ble and ashes af­ter flee­ing Santa Rosa’s dev­as­tated Cof­fey Park neigh­bour­hood.

Then she got a call from a friend: “You’re not go­ing to be­lieve this.” Her home was one of only a hand­ful still stand­ing. “I swore when I left I was never com­ing back to this place,” Brooner said. “I feel so bad for all the other peo­ple. All of us came back think­ing we had noth­ing left.”

Pic­ture / AP

Cal Fire’s Kim Sone in­spects the re­mains of homes in Santa Rosa de­stroyed by this week’s fires.

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