The death toll from the fires has hit 41, and officials believe that number will rise as searchers make their way through the neighborhoods in Santa Rosa that burned down as well as mountain communities across wine country.
What you need to know:
- Officials said Monday they are making good progress on the massive Tubbs and Atlas fires, which are both more than 60% contained.
- Crews have also achieved 50% containment on the Nuns fire, but a smaller adjacent blaze near the Oakmont neighborhood of Santa Rosa continues to cause trouble.
- Mandatory evacuation orders for Calistoga residents east of the Tubbs fire and locals living south of Lake Curry east of the Atlas fire have been lifted. Orders remain in place for several communities to the Atlas fire's north, east and south flanks.
- Over the next few days, weather conditions are expected to improve significantly.
- Northern California fires have scorched more than 220,000 acres since they began Oct. 8. As many as 10,000 firefighters from throughout California and surrounding states have battled the fires around the clock.
Recovery crews in Sonoma County have begun the grim task of searching for bodies in the ashes of neighborhoods that were devastated by wildfires.
Sheriff Rob Giordano on Thursday announced the county's 14th death (bringing the Northern California fires death toll up to 24) and said at a morning briefing that law enforcement is "moving into a recovery phase" in the aftermath of the Tubbs fire in the Santa Rosa area, which he called "an active disaster."
The searches can take hours and identification will be difficult, Giordano said.
"So far in the recoveries we have found bodies that were almost completely intact and bodies that were nothing more than ash and bone," he said.
Sometimes, he said, the only way to identify someone is through a medical device, such as a metal hip replacement, that has an ID number.
"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.
Asked whether he expected the death toll to rise, Giordano said, "I'd be unrealistic if I didn't."
Giordano said law enforcement personnel are working through missing-persons reports, trying to reach people by phone, with alternate addresses or through family members. When that fails, he said, they conduct targeted searches of the homes of the missing.
As of Thursday morning, Sonoma County had received 900 missing-persons reports, and had found 437 people safe.
"We have teams of people who are going out searching for a very specific person ... to a very specific place. That's how the majority of recoveries have been made so far," Giordano said.
Starting Thursday, three search-and-rescue teams of mostly civilian volunteers from Alameda, Monterey, and Sonoma counties will be going out with cadaver dogs to some of the hardest-hit areas where it is "probable" that a missing person may be found, sheriff's department officials said.
Sheriff's Sgt. Shawn Murphy confirmed in an interview after the briefing that the department is sending teams to the Kenwood and Mark West Springs Road areas, but said searchers were not yet going to the Journey's End mobile home park, which was almost completely razed and where at least one death has been reported.
Murphy said he does expect to conduct searches there eventually, once the teams have more information.