Blazes now dead­li­est in state his­tory

As toll leaps to 31, crews con­tinue search­ing for sur­vivors and re­mains

The Dallas Morning News - - Nation&world - Ellen Knickmeyer, The As­so­ci­ated Press

SONOMA, Calif. — Searc­hand-res­cue teams fo­cused their ef­forts on find­ing the miss­ing and the dead Thurs­day as the death toll from blazes scorch­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s wine coun­try rose to 31, mak­ing this the dead­li­est week of wild­fires in state his­tory.

Many of the fires still burned out of con­trol, con­sum­ing more than 300 square miles, an area as large as New York City. A to­tal count of 22 fires on Wed­nes­day fell to 21 on Thurs­day be­cause two large fires merged, state Fire Chief Ken Pim­lott said.

Sonoma and Napa coun­ties en­dured a fourth day of chok­ing smoke, and many res­i­dents fled to shel­ters or camped out on beaches to await word on their homes and loved ones.

A fore­cast for gusty winds and dry air threat­ened to fan the fires fur­ther.

Some of the state’s most his­toric tourist sites, in­clud­ing Sonoma city and Cal­is­toga in Napa Val­ley, were ghost towns pop­u­lated only by fire crews try­ing to stop the ad­vanc­ing in­fer­nos.

Cal­is­toga, known for wine tast­ings and hot springs, had dozens of fire­fight­ers staged at street cor­ners. Ash rained down from the sky, and a thick haze cov­ered the ground. Mayor Chris Can­ning warned that the fires were draw­ing closer and that all of the city’s 5,000 res­i­dents needed to heed an evac­u­a­tion or­der.

“This is a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion. Your pres­ence in Cal­is­toga is not wel­come if you are not a first re­spon­der,” Can­ning said dur­ing a news briefing, ex­plain­ing that fire­fight­ers needed to fo­cus on the blazes and had no time to save peo­ple.

A few res­i­dents left be­hind cook­ies for fire crews with signs read­ing, “Please save our home!”

Sonoma County Sher­iff Robert Gior­dano said that of­fi­cials were still in­ves­ti­gat­ing hun­dreds of re­ports of miss­ing peo­ple and that re­cov­ery teams would be­gin con­duct­ing “tar­geted searches” for spe­cific res­i­dents at their last known ad­dresses.

“We have found bodies al­most com­pletely in­tact, and we have found bodies that were noth­ing more than ash and bones,” the sher­iff said.

Some re­mains have been iden­ti­fied by med­i­cal de­vices un­cov­ered in the scorched heaps that were once homes. Metal im­plants, such as ar­ti­fi­cial hips, have ID num­bers that helped put names to vic­tims, Gior­dano said.

Eight new deaths con­firmed Thurs­day brought the to­tal to 31. Most of the fires, and the deaths, were in the coastal re­gion north of San Fran­cisco that en­com­passes wine coun­try. Four deaths came far­ther in­land in Yuba County.

The Oakland Hills fire of 1991 killed 25 peo­ple, and the Grif­fith Park fire in Los An­ge­les in 1933 killed 29, but never in the state’s recorded his­tory have so many peo­ple been killed by a si­mul­ta­ne­ous se­ries of fires, said Daniel Ber­lant, a deputy di­rec­tor with the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion.

Fire­fight­ers had re­ported mod­est gains against the blazes, but con­tain­ment seemed nowhere in sight.

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

More than 8,000 fire­fight­ers were bat­tling the blazes, and more man­power and equip­ment was ar­riv­ing from around the coun­try and from as far away as Aus­tralia, of­fi­cials said.

Since ig­nit­ing Sun­day in spots across eight coun­ties, the fires have trans­formed many neigh­bor­hoods into waste­lands. At least 3,500 homes and busi­nesses have been de­stroyed, and an es­ti­mated 25,000 peo­ple have been forced to flee.

The chal­lenge of fight­ing the fires was com­pounded by the need for more help and the grow­ing fa­tigue of fire­fight­ers who have been work­ing for days.

“We have peo­ple that have been on that fire for three days who don’t want to leave,” said Cal Fire’s deputy in­ci­dent com­man­der in Napa, Barry Bier­mann. “At some point, you hit a road­block.”

Hun­dreds of evac­uees fled to beaches far to the north of the fires, some sleep­ing on the sand. Since then, au­thor­i­ties have brought tents and sleep­ing bags and opened pub­lic build­ings and restau­rants to house peo­ple seek­ing refuge in the safety and clean air.

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