DAN­GER FAR FROM OVER

Death toll: Count hits 31, ex­pected to jump with hun­dreds still miss­ing

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Kim­berly Vek­lerov, Jill Tucker, Melody Gu­tier­rez and Peter Fim­rite

The death toll from North­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s hor­ren­dous wild­fires jumped to 31 on Thurs­day as the scorched ground be­gan to fi­nally cool and search-and-re­cov­ery teams with ca­daver dogs headed into the burn zones of Santa Rosa to find the bodies buried un­der the ash and rub­ble.

Fires were still threat­en­ing res­i­den­tial ar­eas and evac­u­a­tions were still in ef­fect on the south­east side of Santa Rosa Thurs­day, but far­ther north, the emer­gency re­sponse had turned into a grim search for what au­thor­i­ties fear could be dozens, even hun­dreds, more dead.

“We’re mov­ing into a re­cov­ery phase,”

the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, known as Cal Fire. He is “an­tic­i­pat­ing er­ratic, shift­ing winds all week­end” and “new fire starts” as dry windy con­di­tions pre­vail.

“What this means is the fires are go­ing to con­tinue to burn er­rat­i­cally,” he said.

The 8,000 fire­fight­ers strug­gling against the stub­born fires caught a break early Thurs­day as the pre­dicted high winds failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize overnight, but me­te­o­rol­o­gists say all signs are point­ing to steadily wors­en­ing fire con­di­tions through the week­end.

The spread­ing fires have de­stroyed up to 3,500 homes, busi­nesses and other struc­tures. The mayor of Santa Rosa said Thurs­day that an es­ti­mated 2,834 homes were de­stroyed in his city alone.

Of the 29 dead, 15 were found in Sonoma County; eight in Men­do­cino County; four in Yuba County, and two in Napa County.

Two of the big­gest fires — the Tubbs Fire and the At­las Fire — be­gan Sun­day in Napa County, and 70 mph gusty winds blew the in­ferno through ru­ral and ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods, con­sum­ing busi­nesses, ho­tels and winer­ies within hours. As of Thurs­day, Cal­i­for­nia had 21 ac­tive fires pushed by high winds, dry ter­rain and low hu­mid­ity — with all but one in the north­ern part of the state.

Some have merged and some are part of the same fire com­plex. Al­to­gether, they have charred 191,437 acres, or roughly 300 square miles, since Sun­day.

And, they’re still on the move.

Pim­lott said the fires will likely be pushed south­ward by gust­ing winds. He said the big­gest threat as of Thurs­day af­ter­noon was to the cities of Cal­is­toga, Sonoma, Gey­serville and Mid­dle­town in Lake County.

Fire of­fi­cials are also con­cerned about new fires, which is why they are call­ing in even more troops and equip­ment from agen­cies around the United States and the fed­eral govern­ment.

“This is not about only the fires we have,” Pim­lott said. “We are con­stantly an­tic­i­pat­ing fires that may come.”

The dead­li­est con­fla­gra­tion, the Tubbs Fire, grew to more than 34,200 acres Thurs­day af­ter lay­ing bare an area stretch­ing from Cal­is­toga to Santa Rosa. With 15 killed, it is now the third-dead­li­est wild­land fire in mod­ern state his­tory.

Be­sides the 2,834 homes de­stroyed In Santa Rosa alone, the city lost 410,000 square feet of com­mer­cial space, a new fire sta­tion in Foun­tain­grove and two sewage lift sta­tions, ac­cord­ing to city of­fi­cials.

But be­lea­guered fire­fight­ers have at least made some progress — the Tubbs Fire is now 10 per­cent con­tained , mean­ing a fire­break has been built around a por­tion of the burn area.

A har­row­ing fight is also be­ing waged against the At­las Fire, which has con­sumed more than 43,700 acres, in­clud­ing dozens of homes and winer­ies north­east of the city of Napa. It was only 3 per­cent con­tained.

Sonoma County Sher­iff Rob Gior­dano said teams of de­tec­tives ac­com­pa­nied by ca­daver dogs are search­ing for the miss­ing among the vast swaths of wreck­age. He said iden­ti­fy­ing some of the de­ceased will be dif­fi­cult due to fire dam­age.

“We have found bodies that were al­most com­pletely in­tact and we have found bodies that were noth­ing but ash and bones,” he said, be­fore quickly apol­o­giz­ing for the graphic de­scrip­tion. “But that is what we are faced with in this fire.”

Gior­dano said 397 peo­ple re­mained miss­ing in Sonoma County alone on Thurs­day. The num­ber, which was 1,000 at one point, has been fluc­tu­at­ing over the past few days as peo­ple are found, oth­ers are added and du­pli­ca­tions are dis­cov­ered on the of­fi­cial list, he said.

Foren­sics ex­perts are searchIn ing for the causes of the fires, and Pim­lott said all pos­si­bil­i­ties will be looked at, in­clud­ing whether power lines downed by high winds sparked some of the blazes. As­sign­ing blame now, he said, would be “all spec­u­la­tion, all ru­mor. The facts will come out when the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is done.”

The two deadly blazes in Napa and Sonoma coun­ties were only part of a vast smoky checker­board of out-of-con­trol fires plagu­ing al­most ev­ery com­mu­nity from the Mar­inSonoma county line to Men­do­cino County. Although their progress has been slowed, most of them are still grow­ing and, to the dis­may of fire of­fi­cials, some of them are com­bin­ing.

The Nuns Fire in Sonoma County has com­bined with the Nor­rbom Fire, and is burn­ing along High­way 12 north of Glen Ellen. The joined fires have con­sumed nearly 15,000 acres and are 3 per­cent con­tained.

The Par­trick Fire west of Napa has burned al­most 11,000 acres and is 2 per­cent con­tained. The Adobe Fire near Ken­wood is 8,000 acres and Press­ley Fire east of Rohn­ert Park is close to 500 acres with only 1 per­cent con­tain­ment.

In Men­do­cino County, the Red­wood Com­plex Fire has burned 32,100 acres and is 5 per­cent con­tained.

The on­go­ing dis­as­ter has changed the very fab­ric of life in the now empty towns nor­mally filled with wine-sip­ping and spa-go­ing tourists. Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple have been forced to flee their homes in his­toric mis­sion com­mu­ni­ties, Wine Coun­try towns and a patch­work of neigh­bor­hoods from Sonoma to Santa Rosa.

Some 4,800 peo­ple were packed into 42 emer­gency shel­ters in the state af­ter the wine­tast­ing-room town of Cal­is­toga was evac­u­ated. A hilly neigh­bor­hood just 1 mile from the his­toric Sonoma Plaza and its fa­mous Spanish mis­sion was also evac­u­ated.

The Ben­nett Val­ley and An­nadel Heights neigh­bor­hoods on the east edge of Santa Rosa, parts of Gey­serville north of Healds­burg, and the Green Val­ley area in Solano County were evac­u­ated

In ad­di­tion, res­i­dents of many other com­mu­ni­ties — in­clud­ing parts of Fair­field in Solano County and Boyes Hot Springs in Sonoma County — were told by of­fi­cials to pack bags and pre­pare to evac­u­ate due to the un­pre­dictable na­ture of the fires. Many peo­ple not un­der evac­u­a­tion or­ders cleared out any­way to avoid the smoke and py­rotech­nics.

Gov. Jerry Brown of­fered his sym­pa­thy Thurs­day to the vi­care tims of fires that are rav­aging the state, with his spokesman say­ing the gover­nor plans to visit the af­fected ar­eas, but not im­me­di­ately so that his prese ence doesn’t take away from crit­i­cal re­sources needed to com­bat the blaze.

“Our fo­cus is on get­ting re­sources where they're needed most, not pulling them away for photo ops with the gover­nor,” Brown’s spokesman Evan Westrup said.

Brown has taken a sim­i­lar po­si­tion in other ma­jor dis­as­ters, in­clud­ing the Oroville spill­way fail­ure ear­lier this year, where the gover­nor qui­etly vis­ited days af­ter the near catas-

“Thisonly theis not fires aboutwe have. We are con­stantly an­tic­i­pat­ing fires that may come.” Cal Fire Chief Ken Pim­lott

tro­phe with­out alert­ing the me­dia.

On Thurs­day, prior to sign­ing nine bills in Sacra­mento aimed at im­prov­ing the lives of women and chil­dren, Brown opened with his con­cern about the fires across the state.

“We are work­ing to get fire trucks and air­planes and per­son­nel to all the ar­eas we can,” Brown said. “We aren’t in any way fin­ished. Some places are be­gin­ning to be con­tained. But the fires are burn­ing and the winds can come up, they aren’t as calm as we would like them to be. The next cou­ple days are very se­ri­ous for Cal­i­for­nia.”

In Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Con­gress ap­proved $19 bil­lion in dis­as­ter re­lief fund­ing to ad­dress hur­ri­cane and fire emer­gen­cies, said Rep. Mike Thomp­son, D-St. He­lena, in­clud­ing a last-minute $1 bil­lion in­crease to help with re­cov­ery from the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia fires.

The pri­mary driver of fires is a huge abun­dance of grasses that grew tall dur­ing win­ter rains and then dried out un­der sear­ing heat dur­ing the sum­mer. That, com­bined with low hu­mid­ity and Santa Ana-like winds blow­ing to­ward the sea is a recipe for cat­a­strophic fire, ex­perts say.

The off­shore winds in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, which al­most al­ways come in the fall, are known as Di­ablo winds. They fed the dev­as­tat­ing Oakland Hills Fire.

Cal­i­for­nia High­way Pa­trol of­fi­cials con­tin­ued to urge res­i­dents to stay off the road­ways as fire­fight­ers at­tempted to carve out con­tain­ment lines on mul­ti­ple fronts us­ing re­tar­dant-drop­ping air­craft, bull­doz­ers, hoses and hand tools.

“There are wires down, trees down. It’s still very ten­u­ous,” said Cmdr. Mike Pala­cio of the Cal­i­for­nia High­way Pa­trol.

Mean­while, chil­dren re­mained out of school and mail car­ri­ers did their rounds in res­pi­ra­tor masks to avoid smoky air that has made air qual­ity the worst in the na­tion.

In Sonoma’s cen­tral square of restau­rants, shops, bed-and­break­fasts and wine-tast­ing rooms — one of the coun­try’s big­gest tourist des­ti­na­tions — there was no evac­u­a­tion or­der. But con­cern was high enough that mov­ing trucks spent Wed­nes­day out­side the Mis­sion San Fran­cisco Solano, with work­ers whisk­ing price­less ar­ti­facts to safety.

Peter DaSilva / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Em­bers still glow at a burned house on Mount Veeder Road in Napa County af­ter flames from the Nuns Fire scorched the area. The blaze joined the Nor­rbom Fire and com­bined con­sumed nearly 15,000 acres.

A home on Sky­farm Drive in Santa Rosa ap­pears to be un­dam­aged by Mon­day's firestorm, although it was dif­fer­ent story for a burned-out mini­van parked in the drive­way.

Paul Chinn / The Chron­i­cle

Sol­diers de­ployed from the Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard unit in Pitts­burg rest on cots at the Sonoma County Fair­grounds in Santa Rosa between their shifts bat­tling the re­lent­less blaze that has put 8,000 fire­fight­ers in ac­tion.

Ned and Vivien MacDon­ald on Ben­nett Val­ley Road near Santa Rosa post a sign thank­ing fire­fight­ers and po­lice of­fi­cers. Part of their 450 acres were charred, but fire­fight­ers saved their home.

Known fire vic­tim lo­ca­tions

The death toll from the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia fires has risen to 29. Here is a list of known lo­ca­tions.

Paul Chinn / The Chron­i­cle

Noah Berger / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

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