Fires set grim record
Deadliest wildfires in state history claim 31 lives
SONOMA — 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 ruins.
New deaths confirmed Thursday took the toll to 31, making this the deadliest week of wildfires in state history.
Many of the flames still burned out of control, and the fires grew to more than 300 square miles, an area as large as New York City.
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 further.
Some of the state’s most historic tourist sites, including Sonoma city and Calistoga in Napa Valley, were ghost towns populated only by fire crews.
Calistoga, known for wine tastings and hot springs, had dozens of firefighters staged at street corners. Ash rained down from the sky and a thick haze covered the ground. Mayor Chris Canning warned that the 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.
“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 uncovered in the scorched ruins. Metal implants, such as artificial hips, have ID numbers that helped put names to victims, he said.
The eight new deaths confirmed
Thursday brought the total to 31. Most of the fires, and the deaths, were in the coastal region north of San Francisco. Four deaths came from Yuba County.
While the Oakland Hills fire of 1991 killed 25 people by itself and the Griffith Park fire
in Los Angeles in 1933 killed 29, never in recorded state history have so many people been killed by a simultaneous series of fires, said Daniel Berlant, a deputy director with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Neil Thollander, left, and Jennifer Hawks, right, apply water and earth to a big Douglas fir tree stump, probably logged in the 1950s, near Calistoga on Thursday.
Aerial view of the damage caused by a fire that destroyed the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa on Wednesday.
Above left: Roses grow near singed grape vines at the destroyed Helena View Johnston Vineyards near Calistoga on Thursday. Above right: Davis Zamora, a Sugarpine camp crew 3 member, douses water on a hot spot near Calistoga on Wednesday.