Calistoga was a ghost town Thursday. Thick smoke hung in the air like fog. Motorcycle cops in masks circled deserted streets. Everything downtown was closed — the art galleries, the cafes, the wine-tasting rooms.
But the fact that this Napa County wine country town was still standing was seen as a victory after days of relentless destruction in Northern California from one of the worst firestorms in state history.
The entire town of Calistoga had been evacuated the previous day amid fire authorities' fears that 40-mph winds would drive the massive, deadly Tubbs fire toward Calistoga after it wiped out huge swaths of Santa Rosa.
The good news — and weary fire crews clung to any good news — was that, as of Thursday afternoon, the wind wasn't as bad as expected and crews were beginning to get a handle on some of the blazes. But officials stressed the conditions remain highly dangerous. Erratic winds are expected this weekend, and the mass evacuations are expected to continue.
Firefighters did take advantage of a lull in the winds beginning Wednesday night, said Richard Cordova, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, allowing crews to establish 10% containment around the 34,270-acre blaze, which had killed at least 17 people in neighboring Sonoma County as of Thursday night.
But to the west in Santa Rosa, the full scope of the catastrophic fires was coming into grim focus. Stunned city officials said Thursday that an estimated 2,834 homes and 400,000 square feet of commercial space have been destroyed, mostly on Sunday night and Monday morning. Even the city's newest fire station, along Fountaingrove Parkway, has been lost, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said.
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said authorities were "moving into a recovery phase" in the burned-out neighborhoods of Santa Rosa and that this process will be long and painful.
"So far, in the recoveries, we have found bodies that were almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bone," he said, noting that in the latter cases, sometimes the only way to identify someone was through a medical device, such as a metal hip replacement with an identification number.
It could take weeks, or even months, to identify the most incinerated bodies, Giordano said. Law enforcement officers were walking with cadaver dogs through destroyed neighborhoods where it was likely that bodies would be found, he added.
At least 17 fires were burning in Northern California, and authorities on Thursday raised the death toll for all the blazes to 31. Local officials said they had begun the search for more bodies amid the ashes of burned communities. Hundreds remained missing.
Still, state and local officials throughout Northern California expressed optimism that milder-than-expected winds and the arrival of more firefighting crews would allow them to make progress against the worst of the blazes.
Crews managed to start a containment line for the 43,762-acre Atlas fire, which began in Napa and moved into Solano County.
"We are beginning to contain this fire, and that is the story of the day," Napa County Supervisor Belia Ramos said.
Though firefighters found hope in cooler daytime temperatures and relatively light winds, thousands of residents were reeling from the devastation. The fires had consumed at least 180,000 acres in Northern California.
Around Santa Rosa, hotels were sold out, packed with people who lost their homes or didn't know when they could return. Restaurants were providing free food to evacuees, and some residents had already begun filling out insurance paperwork as they wondered where they would go.
Teams from the Napa County coroner were on Atlas Peak Road outside Napa on Thursday, checking the addresses of people reported missing, "kind of like wellness checks," said sheriff's Sgt. Mark Foster. At one address, the news was good.
"The property was intact," he said. Residents must have escaped.
Road closures throughout the region turned routine drives into long, circuitous routes through an apocalyptic landscape. Major highways and country lanes were packed with utility trucks as crews worked to repair downed power lines and replace destroyed telephone poles.
Firefighters who had been battling flames around Mt. St. Helena struggled Thursday. They pulled back before noon after the fire hopped Highway 29, which runs adjacent to the mountain north of evacuated Calistoga.
"It's so steep. The fire is unpredictable," said Amy Head, a Cal Fire spokeswoman on the scene. "We don't want to get trapped on this mountain."
After regrouping nearby, firefighters returned to the mountain in the afternoon, clearing brush in hopes of slowing the fire's advance.
There was still concern for Calistoga and elsewhere, as officials expected winds between 10 and 20 mph Thursday night and stronger seasonal winds over the weekend, Cal Fire spokeswoman Heather Williams said.
Those who return "are on your own," said Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning. "To the Calistogans out there, stay strong."
Hundreds of people from the Calistoga area remained at the Red Cross shelter at nearby Napa Valley College.
Dan Sutidze, 55, had evacuated with his mother-in-law. They had packed a bag earlier this week and were thinking about unpacking it when police came by their house Wednesday and told them to clear out. They slept in their sedan with their two dogs, Lexi and Buba, because dogs weren't allowed in the shelter. A neighbor remained behind and has been sending updates, he said.
"He said everything is fine," Sutidze said.
Some refused to evacuate Calistoga. Robert Hooten, a 51-year-old former firefighter, remained but said he was ready to leave if necessary.
"We've got go-bags," Hooten said.
His neighbor, Mike Haswell, 64, also stayed home, along with his wife, dogs and cats.
"We've been here 20 years," he said. "A lot of memories."
Haswell sells equipment to wineries and lives next to an open lot and across the street from a vineyard. He used a hose to wet his roof and thought he should be safe, "unless it got really, really windy with a lot of embers."
Megerian reported from Calistoga, Agrawal reported from Santa Rosa, and Kohli and Branson-Potts reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Paige St. John in Napa, Louis Sahagun in Santa Rosa and Javier Panzar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
6:30 a.m.: This article was updated to reflect the latest death tolls.