Hunt for dead starts in California
Calming winds offer bit of a breather in fighting 21 wildfires
SONOMA, Calif. — Search-and-rescue teams, some with cadaver dogs, started looking for bodies Thursday in parts of California wine country devastated by wildfires, authorities said, warning that the death toll is likely to rise.
Winds that have fanned the wildfires are expected to be calmer through today, giving firefighters a break from the “red flag” conditions that have made the menacing flames so deadly and destructive.
At least 31 people have died, and some 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the blazes, which are well on their way to being 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 that 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.
“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 were burning Thursday in Sonoma and Napa counties, the heart of California’s wine-growing industry. One of the biggest and by far the deadliest blaze so far is the Sonoma Tubbs Fire, which grew about 6,000 acres
overnight Wednesday before conditions began to improve.
The National Weather Service said the calmer winds will last through today, giving fire crews a 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.
“We are not out of this emergency. We are not even close to being out of this emergency,” Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci said at a news conference Thursday.
More than 8,000 firefighters were battling the blazes, and more manpower and equipment were pouring in from across the country and from as far as Australia and Canada, officials said.
The fires that started Sunday leveled entire neighborhoods 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.
Fire officials are investigating downed power lines and other utility equipment failures as possible causes of the fires, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Janet Upton. She said it’s unclear if downed power lines and live wires resulted from the fires or started them.
Jennifer Robison of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said the utility was focused on restoring power and maintaining safety. She said utility officials will not speculate about the causes of the fires.
An estimated 25,000 people have been driven from their homes by the flames, officials said.
In Calistoga, a historic resort town known for wine tastings and hot springs, 5,300 people were under evacuation orders.
As the wildfires raged for a fourth day, they have continued to grow in size and cross county lines. A total of 22 fires Wednesday changed to 21 Thursday because two large fires had merged together, said state Fire Chief Ken Pimlott.
Many blazes burned out of control, spanning more than 304 square miles, an area that if taken together is equivalent to the size of New York City’s five boroughs.
Strategic attacks that have curbed destruction and death tolls in recent years have not worked against these blazes.
Officials say fire crews have made some progress on the deadliest fire in Sonoma County, reaching containment of 10 percent.
In Southern California, cooler weather and moist ocean air helped firefighters gain ground against a wildfire that has scorched nearly 14 square miles there.
Orange County fire officials said Thursday that the blaze was 60 percent contained.
Information for this article was contributed by Ellen Knickmeyer, Jocelyn Gecker, Olga R. Rodriguez, Andrew Dalton and Juliet Williams Dalton of The Associated Press; and by Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Kristine Phillips, Joel Achenbach, Herman Wong, Lea Donosky, Alissa Greenberg, Breena Kerr, Abigail Hauslohner and Kimberly Kindy of The Washington Post.
A helicopter draws water from a pond Thursday during the battle against a raging fire near Napa, Calif.