The staggering losses from the fire that swept through Santa Rosa became grimly apparent Thursday.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said officials estimate 2,834 destroyed homes in the city alone, and about 400,000 square feet of commercial space. Sonoma County has reported 15 deaths so far, most in the Santa Rosa area.
The grim search for victims of the fire
Recovery crews in Sonoma County have begun the grim task of searching for bodies in the ashes of neighborhoods that were devastated by wildfires.
County Sheriff Rob Giordano on Thursday said officials are "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.
Death toll expected to rise
The total death toll from all Northern California fires is 29.
In addition to the 15 deaths in Sonoma County, eight were in Mendocino County, four were in Yuba County and two were in Napa County, according to Cal Fire and Yuba County officials.
COMING TO TERMS WITH LOSS
‘May she rest in peace, my sweet Momma’
A 69-year-old woman was among the 29 people known dead in the fires that continue to rage across Northern California, her daughter confirmed on Facebook late Wednesday.
Linda Tunis' remains were found at her home in Journey's End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa, according to her daughter Jessica Tunis.
"I have been a mess, absolutely devastated," Jessica Tunis wrote on Facebook. "Hug and kiss your loved ones extra hard tonight."
Earlier, Jessica Tunis had used the social media platform to try to find her mother, asking users if they knew whether the park was evacuated before it burned down and posting a missing-person flyer.
The pair had last spoken early Monday.
Linda Tunis called her daughter from her burning home and said, "I'm going to die" before the phone went dead, the Associated Press reported.
"May she rest in peace, my sweet Momma," Jessica Tunis wrote.