DANGER FAR FROM OVER
Death toll: Count hits 31, expected to jump with hundreds still missing
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.
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.
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.
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.
The death toll from the Northern California fires has risen to 29. Here is a list of known locations.