Grim search for wildfire victims
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.