190,000 acres scorched

Au­thor­i­ties face scru­tiny on their meth­ods of warn­ing and evac­u­a­tion

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY CLEVE R. WOOTSON JR., BREENA KERR AND SANDHYA SOMASHEKHAR Kris­tine Phillips, Abi­gail Haus­lohner and Aaron C. Davis con­trib­uted to this re­port.

The death toll in Cal­i­for­nia reaches 31 and is likely to rise as au­thor­i­ties ex­plore the wreck­age.

santa rosa, calif. — The death toll rose to 31 on Thurs­day as Cal­i­for­nia au­thor­i­ties be­gan as­sess­ing the dam­age from the dead­li­est spate of wild­fires to strike the state in more than 80 years, even while the blazes con­tin­ued to flat­ten swaths of land and drive peo­ple from their homes.

Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion of­fi­cials said some 190,000 acres had scorched across the state by Thurs­day af­ter­noon as high winds and dry con­di­tions spread the fires with fright­en­ing speed. Sonoma County, north of San Fran­cisco, sus­tained the most dam­age, with 17 peo­ple con­firmed dead and 400 re­ported miss­ing; in the city of Santa Rosa, of­fi­cials re­ported nearly 3,000 homes de­stroyed.

Taken to­gether, the blazes have killed more peo­ple than the last dis­as­trous fire to strike the state, the Oakland Hills fire in 1991.

The death toll also ex­ceeds that of the 1933 Grif­fith Park fire in Los An­ge­les — and is likely to rise as au­thor­i­ties con­tinue to ex­plore the wreck­age.

“We all have suf­fered a trauma here, and we’re go­ing to be a long time in re­cov­er­ing from this in­ci­dent,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey told re­porters Thurs­day af­ter­noon. “The city of Santa Rosa has suf­fered a se­ri­ous blow in th­ese fires.”

Even as emer­gency per­son­nel bat­tled 22 blazes, au­thor­i­ties be­gan fac­ing ques­tions about the cause of the most dam­ag­ing fire, in Sonoma, and whether they did enough to warn vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents as the flames edged nearer to pop­u­lated ar­eas.

The scru­tiny marks the next phase of a dis­as­ter that erupted seem­ingly out of nowhere Sun­day night, prompt­ing panic among res­i­dents who had no idea that a fire was bear­ing down on them and emer­gency work­ers who said they were stunned at the speed with which the fire pro­gressed.

The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice pro­vided a morsel of good news Thurs­day, re­port­ing that the gusts that fu­eled the blazes and made them harder to fight had died down and were pro­jected to stay light through Fri­day. The respite was ex­pected to be brief, how­ever, as high north winds were ex­pected to kick up again over the week­end.

The news was oth­er­wise grim. Sonoma County Sher­iff Robert Gior­dano said deputies had be­gun the task of search­ing for the miss­ing and the dead, with bodies show­ing up in a va­ri­ety of con­di­tions.

“We have re­cov­ered peo­ple where their bodies are in­tact,” he said, “and we have re­cov­ered peo­ple where there’s just ash and bone.”

Of 1,100 miss­ing-per­son re­ports in the county, more than 745 had been found safe, he said. The where­abouts of 400 were still un­known, though it is pos­si­ble that a num­ber of them were found but not re­ported to au­thor­i­ties. Oth­ers may be out of touch be­cause of power out­ages and downed cell tow­ers.

Mike Mohler, Cal Fire bat­tal­ion chief, said in­ves­ti­ga­tors are look­ing into re­ports of downed power lines Sun­day night to de­ter­mine whether they caused some of the wild­fires.

The util­ity PG&E put out re­peated warn­ings to its cus­tomers on Sun­day as heavy winds bat­tered the re­gion.

“High winds ex­pected. Be alert near fallen trees/branches. Re­port downed lines to 911,” PG&E tweeted sev­eral times. “Al­ways as­sume that a fallen power line is live.”

PG&E spokes­woman Fiona Chan said in an email that the com­pany is fo­cused on “life safety” and restor­ing ser­vice.

“We aren’t go­ing to spec­u­late about any of the causes of the fires,” she said. “We will sup­port the re­views by any rel­e­vant reg­u­la­tor or agency.”

State and county of­fi­cials faced in­creas­ing scru­tiny Thurs­day over how they alerted res­i­dents to the fast-mov­ing fires.

In Sonoma County, law en­force­ment of­fi­cials said they used a Re­verse 911 sys­tem to call res­i­dents’ land­lines to evac­u­ate. The county also sent out alerts through a vol­un­tary text-mes­sage sys­tem. As of June, how­ever, just 10,500 of the county’s halfmil­lion res­i­dents had signed up for the alerts.

A county of­fi­cial said it chose not to send out a coun­ty­wide alert to cell­phones out of fear the mes­sage could in­cite panic and clog road­ways.

State emer­gency op­er­a­tions of­fi­cials said alerts were a lo­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity and they would not sec­ond-guess the de­ci­sions of county lead­ers be­cause each ju­ris­dic­tion faced unique cir­cum­stances as the fires pro­gressed.

In yet un­touched parts of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, fear and un­cer­tainty rip­pled through many com­mu­ni­ties won­der­ing if they would be struck next.

The re­sort area of Cal­is­toga was a ghost town Thurs­day af­ter au­thor­i­ties or­dered ev­ery­one to evac­u­ate, warn­ing that those who stayed put could be sub­ject to ar­rest.

In Pe­taluma, about 20 miles south of Santa Rosa, of­fi­cials on Thurs­day had not is­sued any evac­u­a­tion alerts. But nerves frayed as a smoky haze filled the air from not-so-dis­tant fires, lead­ing some peo­ple to wear masks or wrap their faces in ban­danas.

The town has be­come a haven for many of the peo­ple who have evac­u­ated from other scorched com­mu­ni­ties. In the his­toric down­town, McNear’s Mys­tic The­atre — a mu­sic hall that plays host to folk mu­si­cians, metal bands and Michael Jack­son trib­ute shows — had been trans­formed into a makeshift evac­u­a­tion cen­ter com­plete with a chil­dren’s play area and buf­fet.

“There’s a de­gree of risk for ev­ery­one right now un­til the fires are con­tained,” said Faith Moody, the the­ater’s gen­eral man­ager, who said her own home in Santa Rosa was “so far” still stand­ing. “The truth is that all it takes is for the winds to pick up heav­ily. Things can change so fast.”

Mean­while, in the black­ened Cof­fey Park sub­di­vi­sion of Santa Rosa on Thurs­day, peo­ple sifted through the ashes of what used to be their homes or stood shocked to dis­cover their houses had some­how sur­vived.

The fire hopped over High­way 101, tak­ing out an Ap­ple­bees, a Mc­Don­ald’s and an Arby’s. It left a Taco Bell stand­ing, then bee­lined for the com­mu­nity of wood-framed homes about two miles north of down­town. It has ap­prox­i­mately 200 homes, and al­most all of them are piles of ash.

The fire burned so se­verely that it in­cin­er­ated garages and melted the paint and tires off the cars in­side. The charred rem­nants of one house bled into an­other, with only ad­dresses painted on curbs to dis­tin­guish one plot from an­other.

Paul DiS­tanis­lao, who has lived in the neigh­bor­hood for 27 years, stood on his drive­way on Thurs­day morn­ing, mar­veling at the smok­ing ruin that was once a neigh­bor’s home.

Like so many here, he fled the neigh­bor­hood around 2 a.m. Mon­day af­ter awak­ing to find it en­veloped in an eerie red glow and a shower of hot em­bers.

Des­per­ate to know what be­came of his house, he had found a way into his neigh­bor­hood, which had been cor­doned off by the au­thor­i­ties. He was stunned to dis­cover that the fire had stopped five houses short of his home.

The flames had some­how lodged some­one’s garage door on top of a street­light. The charred husk of a Har­ley-David­son lay in the mid­dle of a street, one of an end­less stream of burned-out ve­hi­cles.

But a few feet from the fire line, at DiS­tanis­lao’s house, even the grass was spared.

“Why am I here?” he asked rhetor­i­cally. “Had it jumped the high­way a lit­tle bit far­ther, my house would be gone.”

STU­ART PALLEY FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A burned res­i­dence in the dev­as­tated Foun­tain­grove neigh­bor­hood of Santa Rosa at sun­rise Thurs­day morn­ing. Of­fi­cials have re­ported nearly 3,000 homes have been de­stroyed in Santa Rosa. For more im­ages, see wapo.st/cal­i­for­ni­afires.

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