Wild­fires set a hor­rific mark for state as death toll hits31

Tally to rise?: 400 peo­ple still miss­ing; flames could worsen

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By David DeBolt, Marisa Ken­dall, Emily DeRuy and Katy Mur­phy Staff writ­ers

Af­ter four days of ter­ror­iz­ing Wine Coun­try and sur­round­ing re­gions, the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires on Thurs­day be­came the dead­li­est in state his­tory, with 31 con­firmed fa­tal­i­ties and more ex­pected.

The most de­struc­tive of those, the Tubbs fire, killed at least 15 peo­ple, and new­fig­ures told of its de­struc­tion. Santa Rosa lost 2,834 homes and ap­prox­i­mately 400,000 square feet of com­mer­cial space, and Mayor Chris Coursey ex­pects the num­bers to grow.

“We all have suf­fered a trauma here,” the mayor said. He is said it will take time to re­cover “from this in­ci­dent. The city of Santa Rosa has suf­fered a se­ri­ous blow.”

Even as fire re­sources pour in from out of state, Cal Fire Di­rec­tor Ken Pim­lott ex­pects the fires to con­tinue to burn “er­rat­i­cally” and “have the po­ten­tial to shift in any di­rec­tion at any time.”

Over the day, the num­ber of deaths rose from 24 to 31, as the toll in­creased in Sonoma County to 17, to eight in Men­do­cino, and to four in Yuba. Two oth­ers died in Napa County, and Yuba County Sher­iff Steven Dur­for said an­other burn vic­tim could per­ish.

The fires’ ter­ri­fy­ing wrath rages on. While Cal Fire ranks the dead­li­est fires in mod­ern his­tory by sin­gu­lar events, the mul­ti­ple fires burn­ing at the same time com­bine as the dead­li­est.

Con­sid­ered to­gether, the 16 North­ern Cal­i­for­nia fires rag­ing this week have now claimed more lives than the 1933 Grif­fith Park fire in Los An­ge­les, which killed 29, and the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, where 25 per­ished.

The tales of this week are

grow­ing in­creas­ingly tragic. As the Red­wood Val­ley fire swept through Men­do­cino County, the Shep­herd fam­ily hur­ried to es­cape, first by car and then foot when the ve­hi­cles caught fire. Kai Shep­herd, a 14-year-old who loved the San Fran­cisco Gi­ants and wrestling, did not make it out alive, his aunt Mindi Ramos said.

“The firestorm washed over them,” Ramos said.

His sis­ter, Kressa, was so badly burned her legs were am­pu­tated be­low the knee at a Sacra­mento hospi­tal where her mother, Sara, was also be­ing treated. Jon Shep­herd, Kai’s fa­ther, re­mains at a burn cen­ter in San Fran­cisco, Ramos said. The fam­ily’s Red­wood Val­ley home on West Road is gone.

“He could just see into peo­ple’s hearts, you know?” Ramos said of Kai. “He was a very sweet, lov­ing, beau­ti­ful boy. It’s go­ing to be a long road.”

In Sonoma County, sher­iff crews and ca­daver dogs be­gan comb­ing through rub­ble and charred re­mains, tar­geted searches of miss­ing per­sons. The grim task of iden­ti­fy­ing the dead could take weeks or months, of­fi­cials said. Some bodies al­ready lo­cated “were noth­ing more than ash and bones,” Sonoma County Sher­iff Rob Gior­dano said. One iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was made through an ID num­ber on a pros­thetic hip re­place­ment.

“That is what we’re faced with in this fire,” Gior­dano said.

By Thurs­day evening, of­fi­cials said they had iden­ti­fied 10 of the 17 dead in Sonoma County.

Sonoma of­fi­cials re­ceived 1,000 re­ports of miss­ing per­sons, some du­pli­cates, and by Thurs­day af­ter­noon 603 peo­ple had been lo­cated, leav­ing 400 miss­ing. With evac­uees scat­tered through­out the Bay Area and beyond, the sher­iff said dam­aged com­mu­ni­ca­tion tow­ers could be one rea­son peo­ple can­not reach rel­a­tives.

Of 77 cel­lu­lar tow­ers dam­aged, 64 were re­stored as of Thurs­day, state of­fi­cials said.

Around the North Bay, peo­ple be­gan re­turn­ing to see if their homes were still stand­ing, or if fire had con­sumed them. Re­tired Santa Rosa po­lice Of­fi­cer Sam Poueu found his po­lice badge among the ashes of his fam­ily’s Lark­field home, ac­cord­ing to the depart­ment.

In Napa, new­ly­weds Laura and Gar­rett Perdi­gao were among res­i­dents in evac­u­ated ar­eas anx­ious Thurs­day to see if their homes still stood. Au­thor­i­ties at a check­point said res­i­dents would be al­lowed in only to res­cue pets and grab med­i­ca­tions, but looked the other way for the Perdi­gaos, a man who was des­per­ate to fin­ish his wine pro­duc­tion and a wo­man who wanted to move her car.

The fire had con­sumed homes a few blocks from the cou­ple’s home, but ev­ery­thing from the car on the street to the small foun­tain bur­bling in the front yard had es­caped dam­age.

“I’m pretty stoked to see all of this in­tact,” 27-yearold Laura said.

For the first time all week, fire of­fi­cials an­nounced progress in 10 per­cent con­tain­ment of the Tubbs fire, which has grown to 34,270 acres. The At­las fire in Napa County, the largest at 43,762, is 3 per­cent con­tained, while the Nuns and Nor­rbom fires merged in Sonoma County.

Statewide, 21 fires, down one from Wed­nes­day, are burn­ing and Cal Fire of­fi­cials ex­pect con­di­tions to worsen over the week­end. They are keep­ing a close watch on the city of Sonoma, Cal­is­toga, Mid­dle­town, and Gey­serville.

Con­di­tions have proved dif­fi­cult for the fire bat­tle be­ing waged on the ground and from the air.

In high winds like the North Bay has seen in re­cent days, the fire re­tar­dant dropped by air­craft blows away, with­out ef­fec­tively stop­ping the fire. And air­craft can’t go up when the smoke is so thick that vis­i­bil­ity suf­fers.

Cal Fire Cap­tain James Rob­bins has spent the past few days fly­ing mis­sions over Wine Coun­try in a Su­per Huey he­li­copter, which tows a bucket ca­pa­ble of hold­ing up to 324 gal­lons of water. The air­craft works in con­junc­tion with the fire­fight­ers on the ground, dous­ing the flames in an at­tempt to slow their spread and give fire­fight­ers time to dig trenches and clear brush to form a line that can con­tain the blaze.

Pi­lot Todd Hud­son, who has been fly­ing mis­sions with Rob­bins, is still wrap­ping his head around what the fires are do­ing to the area where he was born and raised.

“One of th­ese fires would be mind- bog­gling, and there’s mul­ti­ple fires,” he said. “It’s jaw- drop­ping.”

Air qual­ity re­mained a con­cern through­out the re­gion, as sev­eral schools and col­leges closed and for a sec­ond day San Fran­cisco In­ter­na­tional Air­port can­celed flights. Roger Gass, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist with the weather ser­vice, said there might be pe­ri­ods of bet­ter air qual­ity through Sun­day, fol­lowed by stretches of poor air qual­ity.

“The re­al­ity is we’re not go­ing to see a strong on­shore flow that will push smoke out of the area at least through the week­end,” Gass said.

Af­ter days cooped up in their homes, Santa Rosa High School stu­dents Jack Stor­netta, 17, and Dy­lan Les­lie, 16, wore par­ti­cle masks as they skate­boarded past the Sonoma County Sher­iff’s Of­fice, hop­ing to get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of a fire that de­stroyed class­mates’ homes.

“Hon­estly, I can’t wrap my mind around it yet,” Stor­netta said. “It’s still sink­ing in.”

“We’ve been at home, wait­ing it out,” Les­lie said.

Not far away, the Foun­tain­grove area, where homes, ho­tels and restau­rants burned to the ground, lay desolate. In front of one house’s charred re­mains was a sign planted in the grass: “We will re­build,” it read, with a heart.

JOSH EDELSON — AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

A search-and-res­cue team looks for bodies Thurs­day at a prop­erty where a per­son was re­ported miss­ing in Santa Rosa. Of 1,000peo­ple re­ported miss­ing, of­fi­cials have found about 600. With evac­uees spread through­out the re­gion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion ham­pered, ac­count­ing for all will take time.

ANDA CHU — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Fire­fighter Zac Hansen with Cal Fire douses a hot spot along High­way 29near Cal­is­toga. That city is un­der a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­der.

JANE TYSKA — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

A cou­ple sur­veys the fire dam­age Thurs­day at their Soda Canyon Road prop­erty in Napa. They re­mained in their home and fought off two sep­a­rate fires with a gar­den hose.

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