Smoke chokes the Bay Area as menacing fires spread
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.
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.