Death toll rises to 24 in California wildfires
SANTA ROSA, CALIF. — As weary fire crews began to make progress against a firestorm that has killed at least 24 people in Northern California’s wine country, local officials said Thursday that they have begun a grim search for more bodies amid the ashes of burned communities.
At a morning news conference, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano told reporters that a 14th person was found dead in his county as search crews and cadaver dogs began sifting through debris for the first time Thursday.
“We’re moving into a recovery phase,” Giordano said.
Giordano’s department has received 900 reports of missing people. Of those, 437 people have been located and are safe.
At the same time Thursday, state and local officials expressed optimism that milder-than-expected winds and additional firefighting crews from across California were allowing them to make progress against the worst of the fires.
“We need to hit this thing hard and get it done,” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tom Gossner told hundreds of firefighters battling the devastating Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa. “It’s time to finish this thing.”
Fire authorities had feared that 40 mph winds predicted for early Thursday morning would further stoke flames and carry embers to residential areas that had so far escaped fire.
But those winds never materialized in the vicinity of Calistoga, where mandatory evacuation orders had forced 5,000 residents from their homes that afternoon. Cal Fire spokesman Richard Cordova said the lull allowed crews to establish 10 percent containment around the 34,200-acre Tubbs fire.
Crews also managed to start a containment line for the 43,000-acre Atlas fire _ good news for Napa residents who were warned Wednesday afternoon that they might have to evacuate eastern sections of town closest to the fire.
“Additional resources are starting to give us the upper hand,” said Cal Fire deputy incident commander Barry Biermann in Napa.
Despite continuing red flag conditions, forecasts called for cooler daytime temperatures and relatively light winds Thursday. Fire authorities were predicting a generally productive day.
While that forecast may give firefighters hope, tens of thousands of residents throughout the region were still reeling from the devastation.
Beneath choking smokefilled skies that made the morning sun appear deep orange, upscale neighborhoods on the northern edges of Santa Rosa were in ashes, along with gas stations, big box stores and vineyards. Charming country towns of little more than a few antique shops, the post office and a grocery store remained emptied by evacuation orders.
Road closures are turning routine drives into long, circuitous routes across a landscape with fires burning and columns of smoke rising in almost every direction.
“It may be several days or more than a week before people who’ve been displaced can start the process of healing and rebuilding,” said Cal Fire spokesman Richard Cordova. “That cannot happen until we remove all the hazards out there: downed power lines, toppled trees, smoldering hot spots and power outages.”
Thousands of people forced from their homes remain gathered in Red Cross shelters, and some of them still don’t know whether they have a home to return to.
Throughout the region, major highways and country lanes were packed with PG&E trucks aggressively working to restore communications by repairing downed power lines and replacing destroyed telephone poles.
The weaker winds also aided firefighters on the 9,500-acre Partrick fire, but the danger of its pushing into Sonoma and Vineburg remained Thursday.
A man looks on as the flames lay low for the night as the cold seeps into the area, on a vineyard in Sonoma, Calif., on Oct. 9.