FLAMES THREATEN NEW TOWNS; DEATHS RISE

Winds fuel fires’ marches to­ward Cal­is­toga, Fair­field as fire­fight­ers strug­gle to con­tain them

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By David DeBolt, Mark Gomez and Marisa Ken­dall Staff writ­ers

Grim tally: 23 have per­ished, but num­ber likely to go up when searches con­tinue

The death toll from the his­toric fires rag­ing across North­ern Cal­i­for­nia climbed to 23 on Wed­nes­day as flames con­tin­ued to out­race fire crews, forc­ing more evac­u­a­tions in Wine Coun­try towns, and set­ting off fears that sep­a­rate blazes could merge.

For a third day, fire and po­lice of­fi­cials ex­pected the num­ber of deaths to rise as they con­tinue to search for more than 250 peo­ple re­ported miss­ing and strug­gle to get a hold on out-of-con­trol blazes that threat­ened the Napa County re­sort town of Cal­is­toga and crept to­ward western Fair­field in Solano County.

Af­ter the Tubbs fire swal­lowed up en­tire Santa Rosa neigh­bor­hoods ear­lier in the week, its wrath car­ried north to­ward smaller Cal­is­toga, fu­eled by 40 mph gusts, low hu­mid­ity and veg­e­ta­tion still dry from the state’s five-year drought.

Cal Fire of­fi­cials ex­pected by the end of Wed­nes­day that fires to the east, west and north of Napa could meet, form­ing one fe­ro­cious blaze.

“This is what we’ve said ev­ery morn­ing, all week since this be-

gan. We are not out of the woods, and we are not go­ing to be out of the woods for a great num­ber of days to come,” said Ken Pim­lott, di­rec­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion.

In all, 170,000 acres have burned, in­clud­ing more than 42,000 acres in Napa Val­ley’s At­las fire and 28,000 acres in Santa Rosa’s Tubbs fire. Con­tain­ment of all of the fires is low, between 2 and 3 per­cent, fire of­fi­cials said Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon.

And yet again, the ef­fects could be felt through­out the Bay Area. Smoke blown from the North Bay fires filled skies as far away as the Delta, and the Sacra­mento and San Joaquin val­leys, push­ing through the East Bay and South Bay, record­ing the high­est smoke con­cen­tra­tions seen in the re­gion in mod­ern times. Many schools called off out­door ac­tiv­i­ties, and even the Oakland Raiders cut short prac­tice be­cause the air was so bad.

The de­struc­tion of more than 3,500 homes and busi­nesses and death toll com­bined put the fires among the most cat­a­strophic in the state’s his­tory. Deaths in Sonoma, Napa, Men­do­cino and Yuba coun­ties rose from 17 to 23, as about 4,400 peo­ple re­main in shel­ters, thou­sands more ei­ther lost homes or can­not re­turn to them.

Hot spots and fires that shifted and grew by the minute con­tin­ued to slow home-by-home searches, par­tic­u­larly in the neigh­bor­hoods of Santa Rosa wiped off the map.

Of­fi­cers in Sonoma County — where at least 11 of the deaths oc­curred — have re­ceived 600 re­ports of miss­ing peo­ple, but lo­cated 315 of them as of Wed­nes­day evening.

With re­sources ded­i­cated to sav­ing lives in­stead of sift­ing through rub­ble and de­bris, Sonoma County Sher­iff Rob Gior­dano said, a 30-per­son search team is us­ing po­lice de­tec­tive work to lo­cate the miss­ing. They are track­ing down rel­a­tives, friends and search­ing data to de­ter­mine the last known where­abouts of each per­son un­ac­counted for, the sher­iff said.

“The dev­as­ta­tion is enor­mous,” Gior­dano said. “We can’t even get into most ar­eas. The 11 we found have been found for other rea­sons. We’re not do­ing searches to find them. We’re get­ting called there for x, y or z and find­ing them.”

It could be that many of the re­main­ing peo­ple re­ported miss­ing are un­able to con­tact rel­a­tives, he said, but cau­tioned that “when we start do­ing searches, I would ex­pect that num­ber to go up.” Evac­uees in Sonoma County will not be able to re­turn to their homes un­til Mon­day at the ear­li­est, Gior­dano said.

The mood grew in­creas­ingly in­tense in the pic­turesque town of Cal­is­toga as res­i­dents waited to see whether the wild­fire will come rag­ing into town, as it has so many struc­tures in nearby cities. At 2:45 p.m., evac­u­a­tions were or­dered in the town of about 5,200 res­i­dents.

Mayor Chris Can­ning said the fire was com­ing back over Mount St. He­lena with enough speed to pos­si­bly dou­ble back on his town.

“We no longer have a choice in this mat­ter, and we’re not will­ing to take chances with our res­i­dents,” the mayor said.

Af­ter 8 p.m., Sonoma County Sher­iff’s Of­fice is­sued a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­der for east­ern Sonoma Val­ley.

Res­i­dents in western Fair­field and the town of Mid­dle­ton, where a 2015 fire de­stroyed half the town, were also en­cour­aged on Wed­nes­day to evac­u­ate.

In Cal­is­toga, Ri­cardo Vera, 41, was throw­ing a tent, back­pack and jack­ets into the trunk of his white sedan Wed­nes­day morn­ing, as smoke clouded the air and tiny pieces of ash be­gan to swirl in the breeze. He packed up his wife and two daugh­ters and fled to his sis­ter-in-law’s home in Vallejo around 2:30 a.m., af­ter a friend texted him and warned him that the blaze was com­ing closer.

But he for­got a few items and re­turned to his home at Lin­coln Av­enue and Lake Street later in the morn­ing to grab them.

“I came to get lit­tle Stella be­cause we couldn’t find her,” Vera said, ges­tur­ing to a small, gray cat in his drive­way, near where two Oakland po­lice of­fi­cers held a check­point, warn­ing driv­ers away from the ap­proach­ing blaze.

At 11 a.m., a few hours be­fore the manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­der was is­sued, the fate of Vera’s home and the one next door be­long­ing to his brother were out of his hands.

“We’ve been pray­ing,” he said.

By Wed­nes­day evening, the wind had pushed the flames north of Cal­is­toga into a hilly area that was nearly in­ac­ces­si­ble, mak­ing the sit­u­a­tion even more dif­fi­cult for fire­fight­ers.

Cal Fire Cap­tain Joshua Du­port, of Santa Rosa, was wait­ing with his crew Wed­nes­day evening on the side of State Route 29, try­ing to fig­ure out how to get to the fire burn­ing in the hills be­low him. From the road, mul­ti­ple col­umns of thick smoke could be seen ris­ing from the trees, while he­li­copters tow­ing buck­ets flew to and fro, at­tempt­ing to douse the blaze from the air.

“There’s no roads to it right now,” Du­port said.

The chal­leng­ing ter­rain made an al­ready dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion worse. The strong winds that have fu­eled the many Wine Coun­try fires are a fire­fighter’s worst night­mare, Du­port said.

“The fires are too big,” he said. “There’s not enough re­sources.”

Though air district of­fi­cials said ocean breezes helped clear up the air, ash re­port­edly rained down in West Con­tra Costa, and 80 flights were can­celed at San Fran­cisco In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

Statewide, 22 fires are burn­ing. At an af­ter­noon news con­fer­ence, Cal Fire, Mark Ghi­lar­ducci, the head of the state’s Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices, and Gov. Jerry Brown said out-of-state help from Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon, Ari­zona and Ne­vada was on the way, as are ad­di­tional sol­diers and air­men with the Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard. A to­tal of 100 air­craft, 500 en­gines and 8,000 fire­fight­ers are also be­ing brought in from fight­ing a South­ern Cal­i­for­nia fire.

Two Cal­i­for­nia High­way Pa­trol he­li­copters res­cued 44 peo­ple, five dogs and two cats.

Brown called the fire one of the most se­ri­ous in Cal­i­for­nia’s long his­tory in bat­tling wild­fires.

“That’s the way it is with a warm­ing cli­mate, dry weather and re­duc­ing mois­ture,” Brown said. “Th­ese kinds of catas­tro­phes have hap­pened, and they will con­tinue to hap­pen.”

KARL MON­DON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Only a pool re­mains Wed­nes­day among the ashes of an Old Red­wood High­way com­plex in Santa Rosa af­ter the Tubbs fire de­stroyed it.

RAY CHAVEZ — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Two women sort through the rub­ble of the burned-out prop­erty in Napa where Sara and Charles Rippey died Sun­day dur­ing the At­las fire.

BAY AREA NEWS GROUP

JANE TYSKA — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Ali Be­haz­ad­pour puts on a mask Wed­nes­day as smoke fills down­town Cal­is­toga. Half of the re­sort town was evac­u­ated due to a fire com­ing from the east.

RAY CHAVEZ — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Res­i­dents wait for po­lice of­fi­cers to es­cort them in and out of their prop­er­ties in the Sil­ver­ado area of Napa.

JANE TYSKA — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Ri­cardo Vera packs a few be­long­ings as he pre­pares to flee his home in Cal­is­toga to stay in Vallejo with fam­ily.

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