More tears as death toll from California fire hits 31

a raging fire scene

Fire crews began to make slow progress against wildfires that have killed at least 31 people in Northern California’s wine country as officials continued the grim search for more bodies amid the ashes.

In Santa Rosa, the hardest hit by the fires, officials said they were stunned by the scale of the destruction. An estimated 2,834 homes were destroyed in the city of Santa Rosa alone, along with about 400,000 square feet of commercial space, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said in a news conference Thursday afternoon.

Flames left entire neighborhoods and commercial districts in ruins and even destroyed the city’s newest fire station, on Fountaingrove Parkway.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano told reporters that another person was found dead in his county as search crews and cadaver dogs began sifting through debris for the first time Thursday.

Later Thursday, officials confirmed the discovery of several more bodies. Of the 31 deaths, 17 were in Sonoma County, eight were in Mendocino County, four were in Yuba County and two were in Napa County, according to Sonoma County, Cal Fire and Yuba County officials.

Taken together, the death toll from the wildfires in the wine country has now exceeded that of the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which totaled 25. The Cedar fire, which swept through San Diego County in 2003, killed 15 people and destroyed more than 2,800 structures.

Late Thursday, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office identified 10 people who died in that county. They were:

  • Carol Collins-Swasey, 76, of Santa Rosa
  • Lynne Anderson Powell, 72, of Santa Rosa
  • Arthur Tasman Grant, 95, of Santa Rosa
  • Suiko Grant, 75, of Santa Rosa
  • Donna Mae Halbur, 80, of Larkfield-Wikiup
  • Leroy Peter Halbur, 80, of Larkfield-Wikiup
  • Valerie Lynn Evans, 75, of Santa Rosa
  • Carmen Caldentey Berriz, 75, of Apple Valley
  • Michael John Dornbach, 57, of Calistoga
  • Veronica Elizabeth McCombs, 67, of Santa Rosa

Some of the bodies were recovered intact, while others had been reduced to ashes and bones. In two cases, the remains were identified through the serial number on medical devices, such as a metal hip replacement. Two were identified by dental records, another through distinct tattoos. Authorities used fingerprints and family members to identify the rest.

The average age of the 10 who were named was 75, highlighting the risk among elderly and people with disabilities who live in rural regions where cellphones may not work.

As of late Thursday, about 400 people were still missing. The searches can take hours, and identification will be difficult, Giordano said.

“We will do everything in our power to locate all the missing persons, and I promise you we will handle the remains with care and get them returned to their loved ones,” Giordano said.

It could be weeks or even months before all the bodies are identified, he said.

Asked whether he expected the death toll to rise, Giordano said, “I’d be unrealistic if I didn’t.”

State and local officials expressed optimism that milder-than-expected winds and additional firefighting crews from across California were allowing them to make progress against the worst of the fires. But forecasters say winds and hot conditions will return Friday and Saturday.

We need to hit this thing hard and get it done,” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tom Gossner told hundreds of firefighters battling the devastating Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa. “It’s time to finish this thing.”

Fire authorities had feared that 40-mph winds predicted for early Thursday morning would further stoke flames and carry embers to residential areas that so far had escaped fire.

But those winds never materialized in the vicinity of Calistoga, where mandatory evacuation orders had forced 5,000 residents from their homes the previous afternoon. Cal Fire spokesman Richard Cordova said the lull allowed crews to establish a 10% containment around the 34,200-acre Tubbs fire.

On Thursday morning, Calistoga was still a ghost town, apart from a few dozen residents who stayed behind and a Cal Fire incident command center at the town’s Old Faithful geyser.

Motorcycle officers wearing masks were circling the deserted streets. Everything was closed in the downtown area — the art galleries, wine tasting rooms, cafes. Thick smoke hung like fog. Roads leading into town were closed.

Los Angeles Times

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