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.
An inmate firefighter monitors flames as a house burns in the Napa wine region.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
Flames ravage a home in the Napa wine region in California.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter walks near a pool as a neighboring home burns in the Napa wine region.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters douse flames as a home burns in the Napa wine region, as multiple wind-driven fires whip through the region.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
A Cazadero firefighter struggles to protect a home from catching fire in Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, Calif.(Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Louis Reavis views the burned remains of his classic Oldsmobile at his home in Napa.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
A tent structure built for the 2017 Safeway Open burns in Napa on Monday.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
The Estancia Apartment Homes on Old Redwood Hwy. were completely destroyed in Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A resident rushes to save his home as a wildfire moves through Glen Ellen, Calif. Tens of thousands of acres and dozens of homes and businesses have burned in wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties.(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
A Fountaingrove Village man surveys the rubble of his home in Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Downed power poles and lines block a street in Hidden Valley.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )
A fcar burns in the driveway of a destroyed home in Fountaingrove Village.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A wheelchair left abandoned at the evacuated Villa Capri assisted living facility on Fountaingrove Parkway in Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )
A resident rushes to save his home as fire moves through the area in Glen Ellen, California.(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
A San Jose firefighter keep flames down at a home in Hidden Valley.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A Fountaingrove Village couple takes in the ruins of their home after fire ripped through the neighborhood.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A home destroyed in the fast moving wildfire that ripped through Glen Ellen.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A swimming pool reflects the damage caused by the wildfires that moved through neighborhoods near Glen Ellen.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Benicia Police Officer Alejandro Maravilla, left, offers resident Gwen Adkins, 84, a soda while patrolling in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
An aerial view of Journey End’s Mobile home park, along the 101 freeway, destroyed by wildfire in Santa Rosa.(Los Angeles Times )
Spencer Blackwell, left, and Danielle Tate find Tate’s father’s gun collection, melted and burned, inside a gun safe at her father’s home in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )
An American flag is draped on a burned pickup truck on Camino del Prado in the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )
Scorched wine barrels at the Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa after the wildfire burned through.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Fire lights up the night sky framed by a vineyard near Kenwood.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Chloe Hoskins, 7, wearing a bandanna to protect herself from the smoke and ash, checks on a neighbor’s burned-out property with her father in the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa.(Los Angeles Times )
Oakland police officers knock on doors as residents of the Rancho de Calistoga mobile home park are told to evacuate in Calistoga.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
An aerial view of the Coffey Park neighborhood detroyed by wildfire in Santa Rosa.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )
Contra Costa paramedics help Bill Parras, 96, evacuate his home in Calistoga.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )
CHP officers study neighborhood maps before going door to door to tell Sonoma residents to voluntarily evacuate ahead of the wildfire.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A home perched on top of a hill sits in the foreground of a fire moving up on Shiloh Ridge near Santa Rosa.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )
Scorched grapes and vines along the edge of Storybook Mountain Vineyards in Calistoga.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
John and Jan Pascoe survived the firestorm by running out of their home and into their neighbors’ swimming pool in Santa Rosa.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Hundreds of burned wine bottles at the destroyed Helena View Johnston Vineyards near Calistoga.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A Contra Costa County firefighter breaks a wall with an ax as his crew battles flames inside a home along Highway 29 north of Calistoga on Oct. 12.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Atascadero Firefighters try to control flames burning inside a home along Highway 29 in Calistoga on Oct. 12.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Contra Costa firefighters work to put out flames burning inside a home along Highway 29 north of Calistoga on Oct. 12.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Search teams sift through the debris of mobile homes at the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )
A worker pulls out a firearm from the burned wreckage as search team members look through the debris at the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Search team members sift through debris at the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey surveys the damage to the Coffey Park neighborhood.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )
Melted metal is seen on a car in the shadow of a destroyed home in Napa.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Lola Cornish, 50, and her daughter Kat Corazza, 18, look over recovered family jewels that survived the fire at Cornish’s grandfather’s home in Napa.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Some residents were allowed to return to their properties Friday in a neighborhood in Napa that was ravaged by the Atlas fire.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire that threatens the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A helicopter drops water on a fire that threatens the Ledson Winery and Historic Castle Vineyards in Kenwood on Friday.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Manuel Mendoza sorts through donated clothing at the Bridge Church in Santa Rosa on Sunday.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Jean Schettler hugs Father Moses Brown after Mass at St. Rose Church on Sunday. Schettler’s daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, after losing their house in the fires, have moved into the Santa Rosa home of Jean and Jim Schettler.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Gianna Gathman, 18, hugs her grandfather Jim Schettler during Mass at St. Rose Church in Santa Rosa on Sunday. Gathman’s family lost their home in the Fountaingrove neighborhood to the fire. They are now living with the Schettlers.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Kimberly Flinn holds onto the only item that wasn’t lost in a fire that destroyed her home in the Mark West Springs area in Santa Rosa. Flynn recovered a ceramic white butterfly that she had made in memory of a boy she used to babysit and was killed in a hit and run accident.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Gerry Miller, 81, tells San Francisco Police Department Officer Gary Loo how grateful she is to find her home still standing. Residents were allowed to return to their homes in the Mark West Springs area in Santa Rosa Sunday night.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Denise Finitz, 61, thanks Torrance Fire Department firefighters Keith Picket, right, and Capt. Mike Salcido on Oct. 16 after they helped her find her mother’s wedding ring in the ashes of her home, destroyed by wildfires on Carriage Lane in Wikiup.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A search and rescue crew member gives a cadaver dog some water during the hunt for a possible fire victim in the Mark West Springs area of Santa Rosa on Oct. 15.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Burned cars like this vintage Volkswagen litter the landscape in Coffey Park. The neighborhood was completely destroyed by the Tubbs fire 11 days ago, with many residents fleeing in haste as their homes were enveloped in flames.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A giraffe framed in the smoke filled air at the Safari West preserve.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A Watusi bull looks out through the haze of the recent Tubbs fire at the Safari West preserve.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Peter Lang, 77, owner of the Safari West preserve, stands between a pair of white rhinos against a backdrop of charred hillside in Santa Rosa.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Mark Sharp, a resident of Coffey Park, sifts through the remains of his charred home in search of his wife’s wedding band.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Flowers were left on the mailbox of Roy Howard Bowman, 87, and his wife, Irma Elsie Bowman, 88 who died at their Fisher Lake Drive home from the Redwood Valley fire.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Dee Pallesen, left, and her daughter Emily Learn console each as they look over Pallesen’s home, destroyed by the Redwood Valley fire.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Jason Miller plants an American flag on the charred remains of his house as residents of Coffey Park return home.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Burned vehicles litter the landscape in Coffey Park. The neighborhood was completely destroyed by the Tubbs fire 11 days ago, with many residents fleeing in haste as their homes were enveloped in flames.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A pickup truck rests beside a row of charred trees in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
“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.
There is still concern for Calistoga and elsewhere, as officials expect winds between 10 mph and 20 mph Thursday night, and stronger seasonal winds over the weekend, Cal Fire spokeswoman Heather Williams said.
Firefighters were battling the Tubbs fire around Mt. St. Helena on Thursday morning, but they started pulling back before noon. The fire had hopped Highway 29, which runs adjacent to the mountain north of evacuated Calistoga.
“It’s so thick [with vegetation], 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.”
Firefighters had been setting backfires to try to ward off further damage, and contractors were trucking up tanks of water to resupply them. At noon Thursday, the air was thick with smoke.
Those who return “are on your own,” said Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning, warning residents not to expect personal fire protection.
“If you are trying to visit Calistoga, you are not welcome,” Canning said. “To the Calistogans out there, stay strong.”
About 10 miles away from the city at Napa Valley College, a Red Cross shelter swelled with hundreds of evacuees.
Crews also managed to start a containment line for the 43,000-acre Atlas fire — good news for Napa residents who were warned Wednesday afternoon that they might have to evacuate eastern sections of town closest to the fire.
The Atlas fire, which began in Napa and moved into Solano County, has put the Green Valley area in danger, Williams said. That area had mandatory evacuations earlier in the week.
“Additional resources are starting to give us the upper hand,” said Cal Fire deputy incident commander Barry Biermann in Napa.
Firefighters in Napa and Solano counties were warned Thursday morning that critical “red flag” conditions remain, with strong winds, low humidity and “extremely receptive fuels,” according to Thursday morning’s Cal Fire incident management plan for the Atlas and neighboring fires.
Despite continuing red flag conditions, forecasts called for cooler daytime temperatures and relatively light winds Thursday. Fire authorities were predicting a generally productive day.
By Thursday evening, mandatory evacuations were lifted in the areas of Silverado Country Club, Monticello Park and the Avenues, along with areas west of Silverado Trail, between Hardman Avenue and California 128.
While that forecast may give firefighters hope, tens of thousands of residents throughout the region were still reeling from the devastation.
The fires have consumed an estimated 180,000 acres and thousands of structures.
Beneath choking smoke-filled skies that made the morning sun appear deep orange, upscale neighborhoods on the northern edges of Santa Rosa were in ashes, along with gas stations, big-box stores and vineyards. Charming country towns of little more than a few antique shops, the post office and a grocery store remained emptied by evacuation orders.
Road closures are turning routine drives into long, circuitous routes across a landscape with fires burning and columns of smoke rising in almost every direction.
“It may be several days or more than a week before people who’ve been displaced can start the process of healing and rebuilding,” said Cordova, the Cal Fire spokesman. “That cannot happen until we remove all the hazards out there: downed power lines, toppled trees, smoldering hot spots and power outages.”
Thousands of people forced from their homes remain gathered in Red Cross shelters, and some still don’t know whether they have a home to return to.
Some in need are staying away from the shelters, afraid that officials will ask about immigration status.
Giordano, the Sonoma County sheriff, assured the public Thursday afternoon that while shelters will ask for names as a way to keep track of people and aid in finding missing persons, they cannot ask about immigration status.
“No one involved in this process is going to ask any immigration questions. It’s not appropriate, it’s not going to happen,” Giordano said “We’re only asking names, your immigration status is irrelevant. ... Help is there for everyone.”
Throughout the region, major highways and country lanes were packed with PG&E trucks aggressively working to restore communications by repairing downed power lines and replacing destroyed telephone poles.
There are a total of 17 fires in the area, Williams said.
The weaker winds also aided firefighters on the 9,500-acre Partrick fire, but the danger of its pushing into Sonoma and Vineburg remained Thursday.
The Mendocino Lake Complex fires, which includes the Redwood and Sulphur fires, reached 32,500 acres by Thursday, she said. The larger, 29,500-acre Redwood fire is 5% contained, and the Sulphur fire is 40% contained, Williams said.
“They do have structures that have been destroyed — a couple hundred residential structures and nearly 100 outbuildings,” she said.
The area saw mandatory evacuations Monday night in Potter Valley.
“Every glowing ember is a ticking time bomb,” said Stephen Warren, a Cal Fire apparatus engineer.
In addition to Calistoga, residents of Geyserville, in Sonoma County, were ordered to leave their homes Wednesday night, and some in the northeast portion of Santa Rosa were advised to evacuate voluntarily.
Sonoma County also ordered Rio Lindo Adventist Academy, a boarding school on the outskirts of Healdsburg near the edge of the Tubbs fire, to prepare to evacuate if necessary. The school is “up a very long, narrow, two-lane road,” said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Jones “Logistically, it’s a nightmare to evacuate.”
“We’ve had big fires in the past,” Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday at a briefing with state and federal fire officials. “This is one of the biggest.”
Statewide, 30 air tankers, nearly 75 helicopters and 550 fire engines with several thousand firefighters already have been pressed into service. State officials have requested more than 300 additional engines from other states and the federal government.
Santa Rosa lost landmarks in the fire, including the home of “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz.
10 p.m.: Updated with loss Peanuts creator’s home.
9 p.m.: This article was updated new forecast.
7:25 p.m.: This article was updated with information about how the bodies were identified, as well as how many people remain missing.
6:55 p.m.: This article was updated with context about other wildfires.
6:20 p.m.: This article was updated with the identities of 10 people killed in the wildfire.
6:15 p.m.: This article was updated with a new death toll.
5:45 p.m.: This article was updated with tweaks to the top.
4 p.m.: This article was updated with new details from Santa Rosa.
2 p.m.: This article was updated with information about destruction in Santa Rosa, attempts to combat the Tubbs fire near Calistoga and access to shelters.
1:20 p.m.: This article was updated with a revised death toll and information about firefighting efforts near Calistoga.
12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with information about searches for fire victims.
11:45 a.m.: This article was updated with information about search and rescue efforts, and information about the city of Calistoga.
10:45 a.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano.
9:50 a.m.: This article was updated with a revised death toll and comments from Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning.
9:05 a.m.: This article was updated with more information about the fires and firefighting efforts.
This article was originally published at 6:25 a.m.