Death toll climbs to 31 in Calif. blazes

That makes this the dead­li­est wild­fires week in state his­tory

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - NATION & WORLD -

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — As weary fire crews be­gan to make progress against a firestorm that has killed at least 31 peo­ple in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s wine coun­try, lo­cal of­fi­cials said Thurs­day that they have be­gun a grim search for more bod­ies amid the ashes of burned com­mu­ni­ties.

The lat­est toll re­port made this the dead­li­est week of wild­fires in state his­tory.

Sonoma County Sher­iff Robert Gior­dano said Thurs­day night that two more peo­ple had been con­firmed dead there. That raised the statewide death to­tal from 29 to 31.

The Oak­land Hills fire of 1991 killed 29 peo­ple by it­self. While no one fire cur­rently burn­ing has killed that many, col­lec­tively this is the dead­li­est se­ries of si­mul­ta­ne­ous fires in the state since records have been kept.

The searches for vic­tims can take hours, and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion will be dif­fi­cult, Gior­dano said at the brief­ing.

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

“We will do ev­ery­thing in our power to lo­cate all the miss­ing per­sons, and I prom­ise you we will han­dle the re­mains with care and get them re­turned to their loved ones,” Gior­dano said.

It could be weeks or even months be­fore all the bod­ies are iden­ti­fied, he said. Asked whether he ex­pected the death toll to rise, Gior­dano said, “I’d be un­re­al­is­tic if I didn’t.”

At the same time Thurs­day, state and lo­cal of­fi­cials ex­pressed op­ti­mism that milderthan-ex­pected winds and ad­di­tional fire­fight­ing crews from across Cal­i­for­nia were al­low­ing them to make progress against the worst of the fires.

“We need to hit this thing hard and get it done,” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tom Goss­ner told hun­dreds of fire­fight­ers bat­tling the dev­as­tat­ing Tubbs fire. “It’s time to fin­ish this thing.”

As of Thurs­day morn­ing, staff said 2,834 homes had been de­stroyed in the city of Santa Rosa alone, along with about 400,000 square feet of com­mer­cial space, Mayor Chris Coursey said in a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day af­ter­noon.

Fire au­thor­i­ties had feared that 40-mph winds pre­dicted for early Thurs­day morn­ing would fur­ther stoke flames and carry em­bers to res­i­den­tial ar­eas that so far had es­caped fire.

But those winds never ma­te­ri­al­ized around Cal­is­toga, where manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­ders had forced 5,000 res­i­dents from their homes the pre­vi­ous af­ter­noon.

Cal Fire spokesman Richard Cor­dova said the lull al­lowed crews to es­tab­lish a 10 per­cent con­tain­ment around the 34,200acre Tubbs fire.

On Thurs­day morn­ing, Cal­is­toga was still a ghost town, apart from a few dozen res­i­dents who stayed be­hind and a Cal Fire in­ci­dent com­mand cen­ter at the town’s Old Faith­ful geyser.

There is 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.

Fire­fight­ers in Napa and Solano coun­ties were warned Thurs­day morn­ing that crit­i­cal “red-flag” con­di­tions re­main, with strong winds, low hu­mid­ity and “ex­tremely re­cep­tive fu­els,” ac­cord­ing to Thurs­day morn­ing’s Cal Fire in­ci­dent man­age­ment plan for the At­las and neigh­bor­ing fires.

De­spite con­tin­u­ing red-flag con­di­tions, fore­casts called for cooler day­time tem­per­a­tures and rel­a­tively light winds Thurs­day. Fire au­thor­i­ties pre­dicted a gen­er­ally pro­duc­tive day.

The fires have con­sumed an es­ti­mated 280 square miles and thou­sands of struc­tures.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A state fire­fighter worked on hotspots on a hill in the Oak­mont area of Santa Rosa, Calif., on Thurs­day.

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