Grim search for vic­tims as wild­fires grow to size of NYC

El Dorado News-Times - - National -

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Teams with ca­daver dogs be­gan a grim search Thurs­day 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.

Many of the flames still burned out of con­trol in fires that spanned more than 300 square miles (777 square kilo­me­ters), an area equiv­a­lent to the size of New York City's five bor­oughs.

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.

A fore­cast for gusty winds and dry air threat­ened to fan the fires, which claimed their 29th vic­tim and are fast be­com­ing the dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

Some of the state's most his­toric tourist sites, in­clud­ing Sonoma city and Cal­is­toga in Napa Val­ley, were ghost towns as fire­fight­ers tried to stop the ad­vanc­ing in­fer­nos.

Cal­is­toga, known for wine tast­ings and hot springs, was de­serted Thurs­day ex­cept for dozens of fire­fight­ers staged at street cor­ners as ash rained down on them and a thick haze cov­ered the ground. Mayor Chris Can­ning warned that fires were draw­ing closer and all of the city's 5,000 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 iden­ti­fied us­ing med­i­cal de­vices that turned up in the scorched heaps that were once homes. Metal im­plants, such as ar­ti­fi­cial hips, have ID num­bers that helped iden­tify vic­tims, he said.

Fire­fight­ers had re­ported mod­est gains, but con­tain­ment of the flames 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 8,000 fire­fight­ers were bat­tling the blazes, and more man­power and equip­ment was pour­ing in from across the coun­try and from as far as Aus­tralia and Canada, of­fi­cials said.

Since ig­nit­ing Sun­day in spots across eight coun­ties, the fires have trans­formed many neigh­bor­hoods into waste­lands. At least 3,500 homes and busi­nesses have been de­stroyed and an es­ti­mated 25,000 peo­ple forced to flee their homes.

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

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, Shawn 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 dropped dra­mat­i­cally at night. "They were shiv­er­ing and freez­ing."

The chal­lenge of fight­ing the fires has been com­pounded by a need for more help and 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 are 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 the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion.

Some lucky evac­uees have re­turned to find what they least ex­pected.

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

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."

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Fight­ing fires : Fire­fight­ers put out a hot spot from a wild­fire Thurs­day, near Cal­is­toga, Calif. Com­mu­ni­ties in wild­fire-prone North­ern Cal­i­for­nia have an ar­ray of emer­gency sys­tems de­signed to alert res­i­dents of dan­ger: text mes­sages, phone calls, emails and tweets. But af­ter days of rag­ing blazes left at least 23 dead, au­thor­i­ties said those meth­ods will be as­sessed af­ter some res­i­dents com­plained those warn­ings never got through.

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