Smoke chokes the Bay Area as men­ac­ing fires spread

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION - By Thomas Fuller, Denise Grady and Richard Perez-Pena

SONOMA, CALIF. >> Some of the worst wild­fires ever to tear through Cal­i­for­nia have killed 31 peo­ple and torched a vast area of the state’s north this week, but the reach of the blazes is spread­ing dra­mat­i­cally fur­ther by the day, as thick plumes of smoke blow through pop­u­la­tion cen­ters across the Bay Area. Ev­ery­thing now smells burnt. Hills and build­ings are cov­ered in a haze. Res­i­dents nowhere near the front lines of the fires now ven­ture out wear­ing air masks. On a hill­side above the Rus­sian River, a broad and men­ac­ing band of fire is turn­ing a blue sky into a gray mi­asma of soot. Air-qual­ity, based on lev­els of tiny par­ti­cles that can flow deep into the lungs, is rated “un­healthy” across much of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, and smoke has trav­eled as far as Fresno, more than 200 miles to the south. The ef­fects are many: Schoolchil­dren are be­ing kept in­side dur­ing re­cess, the Oakland Raiders can­celed their out­door prac­tice Thurs­day to pre­vent play­ers from breath­ing in the bad air, and doc­tors are re­port­ing an in­crease in vis­its and calls from peo­ple with lung and heart trou­ble.

It is the 31 deaths, how­ever, a toll that sur­passes the of­fi­cial num­ber of peo­ple killed by the sin­gle dead­li­est wild­fire in state his­tory, that has hor­ri­fied Cal­i­for­ni­ans. The Grif­fith Park fire of 1933, in Los An­ge­les, killed 29 peo­ple de­spite burn­ing a mere 47 acres, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials.

Late Thurs­day, au­thor­i­ties said they had iden­ti­fied 10 of 17 peo­ple who were killed in Sonoma County. Most were in their 70s and 80s, and most were found in houses. One was found next to a ve­hi­cle.

“We have found bodies that were noth­ing more

than ash and bones,” said Robert Gior­dano, the Sonoma County sher­iff. In some cases, he said, the only way to iden­tify the vic­tims was by the se­rial num­bers stamped on ar­ti­fi­cial joints and other med­i­cal de­vices that were in their bodies. Be­cause the fires have sent so many res­i­dents scram­bling for safety, sep­a­rat­ing them from rel­a­tives, au­thor­i­ties have re­ceived re­ports of 900 miss­ing peo­ple and have de­ployed 30 de­tec­tives to track them down. Of­fi­cials said they had con­firmed the lo­ca­tions and safety of 437 peo­ple and were still look­ing for the other 463.

If they can­not find them by phone or on­line, they send search and res­cue teams with ca­daver dogs to the homes — if the homes are ac­ces­si­ble, which in many cases, they still are not. “It’s go­ing to be a slow process,” Gior­dano said. Statewide, 21 ma­jor fires were still burn­ing Thurs­day, hav­ing con­sumed more than 191,000 acres since the out­break be­gan Sun­day night, said Ken Pim­lott, the chief of Cal Fire, the state fire­fight­ing agency. The num­ber of sep­a­rate fires rises and falls of­ten, as new blazes flare up and old ones merge, but the size of the dev­as­tated area has grown steadily. Hospi­tals near the worst fires are strug­gling as they con­tinue to take in pa­tients. At Santa Rosa Memo­rial, the city’s largest hospi­tal, tech­ni­cians in­stalled a large air fil­tra­tion sys­tem to clear smoky air from the hospi­tal lobby.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TOS

Smoke and haze from wild­fires hung over the sky­line Thurs­day in San Fran­cisco. A fire­fighter, at left, ges­tured to his col­leagues Thurs­day as he walked through thick smoke near Cal­is­toga, Calif.

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