A town de­serted, but still stand­ing

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Mege­rian, Nina Agrawal, Son­ali Kohli and Hai­ley Bran­son-Potts

CAL­IS­TOGA, Calif. — Cal­is­toga was a ghost town Thurs­day. Thick smoke hung in the air like fog. Mo­tor­cy­cle cops in masks cir­cled de­serted streets. Ev­ery­thing down­town was closed — the art gal­leries, the cafes, the wine-tast­ing rooms.

But the fact that this Napa County wine coun­try town was still stand­ing was seen as a vic­tory af­ter days of re­lent­less de­struc­tion in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia from one of the worst firestorms in state his­tory.

The en­tire town of Cal­is­toga had been evac­u­ated the pre­vi­ous day amid fire au­thor­i­ties’ fears that 40mph winds would drive the mas­sive, deadly Tubbs fire to­ward Cal­is­toga af­ter it wiped out huge swaths of Santa Rosa.

The good news — and

weary fire crews clung to any good news — was that, as of Thurs­day af­ter­noon, the wind wasn’t as bad as ex­pected and crews were be­gin­ning to get a han­dle on some of the blazes.

But of­fi­cials stressed that the con­di­tions re­main highly dan­ger­ous. Er­ratic winds are fore­cast for the week­end with the po­ten­tial for the blazes to grow — and new ones to start — and the mass evac­u­a­tions are ex­pected to con­tinue.

Fire­fight­ers did take ad­van­tage of a lull in the winds be­gin­ning Wed­nes­day night, said Richard Cor­dova, a spokesman with the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, al­low­ing crews to es­tab­lish 10% con­tain­ment around the 34,270-acre blaze, which had killed at least 15 peo­ple in neigh­bor­ing Sonoma County as of Thurs­day af­ter­noon.

But to the west in Santa Rosa, the full scope of the cat­a­strophic fires was com­ing into grim fo­cus. Stunned city of­fi­cials said Thurs­day that an es­ti­mated 2,834 homes and 400,000 square feet of com­mer­cial space had been de­stroyed, mostly on Sun­day night and Mon­day morn­ing.

Even the city’s new­est fire sta­tion, along Foun­tain­grove Park­way, has been lost, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said.

Sonoma County Sher­iff Robert Gior­dano said that au­thor­i­ties were “mov­ing into a re­cov­ery phase” in the burned-out neigh­bor­hoods of Santa Rosa and that this process will be long and painful.

“So far, in the re­cov­er­ies, we have found bodies that were al­most com­pletely in­tact, and we have found bodies that were noth­ing more than ash and bone,” he said, not­ing that in the lat­ter cases, some­times the only way to iden­tify some­one was through a med­i­cal de­vice, such as a metal hip re­place­ment with an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber.

It could take weeks, or even months, to iden­tify the most badly burned bodies, Gior­dano said. Law en­force­ment of­fi­cers were walk­ing with ca­daver dogs through de­stroyed neigh­bor­hoods where it was likely that bodies would be found, he added.

At least 17 fires were burn­ing in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, and au­thor­i­ties on Thurs­day raised the death toll for all the blazes to 31. Hun­dreds re­mained miss­ing.

Still, state and lo­cal of­fi­cials through­out North­ern Cal­i­for­nia ex­pressed op­ti­mism that milder-than-ex­pected winds and the ar­rival of more fire­fight­ing crews would al­low them to make progress against the worst of the blazes.

Crews man­aged to start a con­tain­ment line for the 43,762-acre At­las fire, which be­gan in Napa and moved into Solano County.

“We are be­gin­ning to con­tain this fire, and that is the story of the day,” Napa County Su­per­vi­sor Belia Ramos said.

Though fire­fight­ers found hope in cooler day­time tem­per­a­tures and rel­a­tively light winds, thou­sands of res­i­dents were reel­ing from the dev­as­ta­tion. The fires have con­sumed at least 180,000 acres in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Around Santa Rosa, ho­tels were sold out, packed with peo­ple who lost their homes or didn’t know when they could re­turn. Restau­rants were pro­vid­ing free food to evac­uees, and some res­i­dents had al­ready be­gun filling out in­sur­ance pa­per­work as they won­dered where they would go.

Teams from the Napa County coroner were on At­las Peak Road out­side Napa on Thurs­day, check­ing the ad­dresses of peo­ple re­ported miss­ing, “kind of like well­ness checks,” said Sher­iff ’s Sgt. Mark Foster. At one ad­dress, the news was good.

“The prop­erty was in­tact,” he said. Res­i­dents must have es­caped.

Road clo­sures through­out the re­gion turned rou­tine drives into long, cir­cuitous routes through an apoca­lyp­tic land­scape. Ma­jor high­ways and coun­try lanes were packed with util­ity trucks as crews worked to re­pair downed power lines and re­place de­stroyed tele­phone poles.

Fire­fight­ers who had been bat­tling flames around Mt. St. He­lena strug­gled Thurs­day. They pulled back be­fore noon af­ter the fire hopped High­way 29, which runs ad­ja­cent to the moun­tain north of evac­u­ated Cal­is­toga.

“It’s so steep. The fire is un­pre­dictable,” said Amy Head, a Cal Fire spokes­woman on the scene. “We don’t want to get trapped on this moun­tain.”

Af­ter re­group­ing nearby, fire­fight­ers re­turned to the moun­tain in the af­ter­noon, clear­ing brush in hopes of slow­ing the blaze’s ad­vance.

There was still con­cern for Cal­is­toga and else­where, as of­fi­cials ex­pected winds between 10 and 20 mph Thurs­day night and stronger sea­sonal winds over the week­end, Cal Fire spokes­woman Heather Wil­liams said.

Those who re­turn “are on your own,” said Cal­is­toga Mayor Chris Can­ning. “To the Cal­is­to­gans out there, stay strong.”

Hun­dreds of peo­ple from the Cal­is­toga area re­mained at the Red Cross shel­ter at nearby Napa Val­ley Col­lege.

Dan Su­tidze, 55, had evac­u­ated with his moth­erin-law. They had packed a bag ear­lier this week and were think­ing about un­pack­ing it when po­lice came by their house Wed­nes­day and told them to clear out. They slept in their sedan with their two dogs, Lexi and Buba, be­cause dogs weren’t al­lowed in the shel­ter. A neigh­bor re­mained be­hind and has been send­ing up­dates, he said.

“He said ev­ery­thing is fine,” Su­tidze said.

Some re­fused to evac­u­ate Cal­is­toga. Robert Hooten, a 51-year-old for­mer fire­fighter, re­mained but said he was ready to leave if nec­es­sary.

“We’ve got go-bags,” Hooten said.

His neigh­bor, Mike Haswell, 64, also stayed home, along with his wife, dogs and cats.

“We’ve been here 20 years,” he said. “A lot of mem­o­ries.”

Haswell sells equip­ment to winer­ies and lives next to an open lot and across the street from a vine­yard. He used a hose to wet his roof and thought he should be safe, “un­less it got re­ally, re­ally windy with a lot of em­bers.”

Mar­cus Yam Los An­ge­les Times

FIRE­FIGHT­ERS pulled back af­ter the Tubbs fire hopped High­way 29, which runs ad­ja­cent to Mt. St. He­lena north of the evac­u­ated town of Cal­is­toga.

Los An­ge­les Times

Mar­cus Yam Los An­ge­les Times

A VIEW of the de­stroyed neigh­bor­hood of Cof­fey Park in Santa Rosa. Around town, ho­tels were packed with peo­ple who lost their homes.

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