Grim search for wild­fire vic­tims

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jo­ce­lyn Gecker David McNew, Getty Im­ages

The As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

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, which claimed their 31st vic­tim. Fire of­fi­cials said it was the dead­li­est week of wild­fires in state his­tory.

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.

Fire­fight­ers had re­ported mod­est gains, but con­tain­ment of the flames 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 told a news con­fer­ence.

More than 8,000 fire­fight­ers were bat­tling the blazes, and more man­power and equip­ment was pour­ing in 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 forced to flee.

The wild­fires con­tin­ued to grow. A to­tal count of 22 fires on Wed­nes­day fell to 21 on Thurs­day be­cause two large fires merged, said state Fire Chief Ken Pim­lott.

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.”

Fire of­fi­cials were in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether downed power lines or other util­ity fail­ures could have sparked the fires. It’s un­clear if downed lines and live wires re­sulted from the fires or started them.

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