Hunt for dead starts af­ter fires

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Ellen Knickmeyer, Jo­ce­lyn Gecker, Olga R. Ro­driguez, An­drew Dalton and Juliet Wil­liams Dalton of The As­so­ci­ated Press; and by Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Kris­tine Phillips, Joel Achen­bach, Herman Wong, Lea Donosky

SONOMA, Calif. — Search-and-res­cue teams, some with ca­daver dogs, started look­ing for bodies Thurs­day in parts of Cal­i­for­nia wine coun­try dev­as­tated by wild­fires, au­thor­i­ties said, warn­ing that the death toll is likely to rise.

Winds that have fanned the wild­fires are ex­pected to be calmer through to­day, giv­ing fire­fight­ers a break from the “red flag” con­di­tions that have made the men­ac­ing flames so deadly and de­struc­tive.

At least 29 peo­ple have died, and some 3,500 homes and busi­nesses have been de­stroyed by the blazes, which are well on their way to be­ing the dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

Sonoma County Sher­iff Robert Gior­dano said of­fi­cials were still in­ves­ti­gat­ing hun­dreds of re­ports of miss­ing peo­ple and that re­cov­ery teams would soon 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.

“There have been IDs in this case, in a pile of ash and bone, where there was a piece of metal left from some­body’s surgery, like a hip re­place­ment, with an ID num­ber that helped us iden­tify the per­son,” he said.

“Th­ese fires are a long way from be­ing con­tained, so

we’re do­ing the best we can for peo­ple that have been dis­placed and help them to hope­fully re­build their lives” said Barry Du­gan, a Sonoma County spokesman.

Nine fires were burn­ing Thurs­day in Sonoma and Napa coun­ties, the heart of Cal­i­for­nia’s wine-grow­ing in­dus­try. One of the big­gest and by far the dead­li­est blaze so far is the Sonoma Tubbs Fire, which grew about 6,000 acres overnight Wed­nes­day be­fore con­di­tions be­gan to im­prove.

The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice said the calmer winds will last through to­day, giv­ing fire crews a chance against the blazes that have mostly raged un­con­trolled. But dry con­di­tions, cou­pled with a new round of high winds ex­pected this week­end, could fur­ther ham­per con­tain­ment ef­forts, of­fi­cials said.

“We are not out of this emer­gency. We are not even close to be­ing out of this emer­gency,” Emer­gency Op­er­a­tions Di­rec­tor Mark Ghi­lar­ducci said at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day.

More than 8,000 fire­fight­ers were bat­tling the blazes, and more man­power and equip­ment were pour­ing in from across the coun­try and from as far as Aus­tralia and Canada, of­fi­cials said.

The fires that started Sun­day lev­eled en­tire neigh­bor­hoods in parts of Sonoma and Napa coun­ties. In an­tic­i­pa­tion of the next round of flames, en­tire cities evac­u­ated, leav­ing their streets empty, with the only mo­tion com­ing from ashes fall­ing like snowflakes.

Fire of­fi­cials are in­ves­ti­gat­ing downed power lines and other util­ity equip­ment fail­ures as pos­si­ble causes of the fires, said Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion spokesman Janet Up­ton. She said it’s un­clear if downed power lines and live wires re­sulted from the fires or started them.

Jen­nifer Ro­bi­son of Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co. said the util­ity was fo­cused on restor­ing power and main­tain­ing safety. She said util­ity of­fi­cials will not spec­u­late about the causes of the fires.

An es­ti­mated 25,000 peo­ple have been driven from their homes by the flames, of­fi­cials said.

In Cal­is­toga, a his­toric re­sort town known for wine tast­ings and hot springs, 5,300 peo­ple were un­der evac­u­a­tion or­ders. As the wild­fires raged for a fourth day, they have con­tin­ued to grow in size and cross county lines. A to­tal of 22 fires Wed­nes­day changed to 21 Thurs­day be­cause two large fires had merged to­gether, said state Fire Chief Ken Pim­lott.

Many blazes burned out of con­trol, span­ning more than 304 square miles, an area that if taken to­gether is equiv­a­lent to the size of New York City’s five bor­oughs.

Strate­gic at­tacks that have curbed de­struc­tion and death tolls in re­cent years have not worked against th­ese blazes.

Of­fi­cials say fire crews have made some progress on the dead­li­est fire in Sonoma County, reach­ing con­tain­ment of 10 per­cent.


A fire­fighter puts out a hot spot from a wild­fire Thurs­day near Cal­is­toga, Calif. Of­fi­cials say progress is be­ing made in some of the largest wild­fires burn­ing in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, but that the death toll is al­most sure to surge.


A he­li­copter draws water Calif. from a pond Thurs­day dur­ing the bat­tle against a rag­ing fire near Napa,

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