Grim search for bodies as Calif. fires’ toll at 31

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jo­ce­lyn Gecker

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, sound­ing a warn­ing that more dead were al­most sure to emerge from the charred ru­ins.

Eight new deaths con­firmed Thurs­day took the toll to 31, mak­ing this the dead­li­est week of wild­fires in Cal­i­for­nia 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, and de­stroyed some 3,500 homes and busi­nesses.

“We’ve found bodies that were al­most com­pletely in­tact. We’ve found bodies that are noth­ing more than ashes and bones,” Sonoma County Sher­iff Robert Gior­dano said at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day.

In some cases, 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.

Gior­dano said of­fi­cials were 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.

More er­ratic wind gusts were fore­cast for Fri­day. Those con­di­tions could erase mod­est gains made by fire­fight­ers this week.

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

More than 8,000 fire­fight­ers were bat­tling the blazes and more man­power and equip­ment was 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 spokes­woman Janet Up­ton. She said it’s un­clear if downed power lines and live wires re­sulted from fires or started them.

Jen­nifer Ro­bi­son of Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co. says the util­ity is fo­cused on restor­ing power and main­tain­ing safety. She says they 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. A few left be­hind cook­ies for fire­fight­ers and signs read­ing, “Please save our home!”

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 count of 22 fires Wed­nes­day changed to 21 Thurs­day be­cause two large fires had merged to­gether, said Cal Fire Di­rec­tor Ken Pim­lott.

Many burned out of con­trol, span­ning more than 304 square miles, an area that if taken to­gether was equal 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 the fe­roc­ity of the blazes.

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

The ash rained down on Sonoma Val­ley as winds picked up. Count­less emer­gency ve­hi­cles hur­ried to­ward the flames, sirens blar­ing, as evac­uees sped away af­ter jam­ming posses­sions into their cars and filling their gas tanks.

JEFF CHIU/AP

While fire­fight­ers have gained some ground, more er­ratic winds fore­cast for Fri­day could erase those ef­forts.

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