Death toll climbs to 31 in Calif. blazes
That makes this the deadliest wildfires week in state history
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.
A state firefighter worked on hotspots on a hill in the Oakmont area of Santa Rosa, Calif., on Thursday.