Grim search for victims is on as wildfires grow
Death toll is now 31; area burning is size of NYC
Sonoma, Calif. — Teams with cadaver dogs began a grim search Thursday for more dead in parts of California wine country devastated by wildfires, resorting in some cases to serial numbers stamped on medical implants to identify remains that turned up in the charred ruins.
New deaths confirmed Thursday took the toll to 31, making this the deadliest week of wildfires in California history.
Many of the flames still burned out of control, and the fires grew to more than 300 square miles, an area as large as New York City.
Sonoma and Napa counties endured a fourth day of choking smoke while 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 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 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 using 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, he said.
The 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 further inland in Yuba County.
A firefighter carries a water hose while battling a wildfire Thursday near Calistoga, Calif. Communities in wildfireprone Northern California have an array of emergency systems designed to alert residents of danger: text messages, phone calls, emails and tweets. But after days of raging blazes, authorities said those methods will be assessed after some residents complained the warnings never got through.