Death toll con­tin­ues to rise in Calif. fires

31 dead, hun­dreds miss­ing, thou­sands re­ported dis­placed

Albuquerque Journal - - FRONT PAGE - BY CLEVE R. WOOTSON JR., KRIS­TINE PHILLIPS, JOEL ACHEN­BACH AND HERMAN WONG

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — 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 alone. The in­fer­nos burn­ing across the re­gion are now the state’s dead­li­est wild­fires on record, their col­lec­tive death toll top­ping 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 told a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day.

In some cases, bodies were iden­ti­fied only 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 fac­ing 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 Thurs­day, 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, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal and state of­fi­cials.

About 1,000 peo­ple have been re­ported miss­ing in Sonoma County, of whom 400 re­mained un­ac­count­ed­for as of Thurs­day af­ter­noon. 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 3,500 build­ings and scorched more than 191,000 acres — a col­lec­tive area nearly the size of New York City.

It is, the state’s fire chief said, “a se­ri­ous, crit­i­cal, cat­a­strophic event.”

Thou­sands have fled their homes. In Sonoma County, nearly 4,000 peo­ple are at two dozen evac­u­a­tion cen­ters.

Many of them will likely be un­able to re­turn home for many days, of­fi­cials said. Evac­u­a­tion zones also con­tinue to ex­pand. On Wed­nes­day, the en­tire city of Cal­is­toga in Napa County was evac­u­ated.

“Th­ese fires are a long way from be­ing con­tained, so we’re do­ing the best we can for 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 6,000 acres 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 neigh­bor­hood 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 neigh­bor­hood 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 Capt. 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.

As thou­sands of fire­fight­ers work to con­tain the blazes, of­fi­cials have started look­ing at what’s ahead: clean­ing up the charred rem­nants of thou­sands of struc­tures, some of which could con­tain haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als.

“You can imag­ine what it’s go­ing to take,” said Du­gan, the Sonoma County spokesman. “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 a lot of work to do.”

Amid th­ese grim bul­letins, the huge util­ity Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co. ac­knowl­edged that the ex­treme winds late Sun­day and early Mon­day had knocked trees into power lines in con­di­tions con­ducive to wild­fires.

“The his­toric wind event that swept across PG&E’s ser­vice area late Sun­day and early Mon­day packed hur­ri­cane-strength winds in ex­cess of 75 mph in some cases,” said Ari Van­re­nen, a PG&E spokes­woman, in a state­ment re­leased af­ter the San Jose Mer­cury News first re­ported on a pos­si­ble link between the wild­fires and the power grid.

“Th­ese de­struc­tive winds, along with mil­lions of trees weak­ened by years of drought and re­cent re­newed veg­e­ta­tion growth from win­ter storms, all con­trib­uted to some trees, branches and de­bris im­pact­ing our elec­tric lines across the North Bay,” she said.

Mike Mohler, a Cal Fire bat­tal­ion chief, said in­ves­ti­ga­tors are look­ing into a se­ries of calls about in­fra­struc­ture fail­ure and downed power lines Sun­day night in Sonoma County — and whether those may have caused some of the fires.

“In­ves­ti­ga­tors are out there, try­ing to de­ter­mine ex­actly if lines were down, how many and where they were,” Mohler said.

Of­fi­cials with the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion (Cal Fire) said they have yet to de­ter­mine the cause of the fires.

JEFF CHIU/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cal Fire Forester Kim Sone is framed by a bas­ket­ball hoop while check­ing homes de­stroyed by wild­fires in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Thurs­day.

JEFF CHIU/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

On Thurs­day, an ex­te­rior win­dow frames a home de­stroyed by wild­fires in Santa Rosa, Calif. Of­fi­cials with the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion said they had not de­ter­mined the cause of the fires.

JAE C. HONG/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In­mate fire­fight­ers cut down trees along Cal­i­for­nia 29 as wild­fires burn Thurs­day near Cal­is­toga, Calif. In many ar­eas, fire­fight­ing crews have been work­ing for days with­out a break.

JAE C. HONG/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A sign stands out­side a home as wild­fires con­tinue to burn Thurs­day near Napa, Calif., be­com­ing the dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive in the state’s his­tory.

JAE C. HONG/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Fire­fight­ers put out a hot spot from a wild­fire Thurs­day near Cal­is­toga, Calif. Twenty-one fires are burn­ing across the north­ern part of the state.

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