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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Firefighters put out a hot spot from a wildfire Thursday near Calistoga, a city in Northern California, where raging blazes have left over two dozen dead.

  • Associated Press A swimming pool lies among the charred remains of a home Thursday destroyed by wildfires in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Friday, October 13, 2017 1:00 am

Death toll, missing grow with wildfires

Associated Press

SONOMA, Calif. – Teams with cadaver dogs began a grim search Thursday for more dead in parts of California wine country devastated by wildfires, resorting in some cases to serial numbers stamped on medical implants to identify remains that turned up in the charred ruins.

New deaths confirmed Thursday took the toll to 31, making this the deadliest week of wildfires in California history.

Many of the flames still burned out of control, and the fires grew to more than 300 square miles, an area as large as New York City.

Sonoma and Napa counties endured a fourth day of choking smoke while many residents fled to shelters or camped out on beaches to await word on their homes and loved ones.

A forecast for gusty winds and dry air threatened to fan the fires further.

Some of the state's most historic tourist sites, including Sonoma city and Calistoga in Napa Valley, were ghost towns populated only by fire crews trying to stop the advancing infernos.

Calistoga, known for wine tastings and hot springs, had dozens of firefighters staged at street corners. Ash rained down from the sky and a thick haze covered the ground. Mayor Chris Canning warned that the fires were drawing closer and all of the city's 5,000 residents needed to heed an evacuation order.

“This is a mandatory evacuation. Your presence in Calistoga is not welcome if you are not a first responder,” Canning said during a news briefing, explaining that firefighters needed to focus on the blazes and had no time to save people.

A few residents left behind cookies for fire crews with signs reading, “Please Save Our Home!”

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said officials were still investigating hundreds of reports of missing people and that recovery teams would begin conducting “targeted searches” for specific residents at their last known addresses.

“We have found bodies almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones,” the sheriff said.

Some remains have been identified using medical devices uncovered in the scorched heaps that were once homes. Metal implants, such as artificial hips, have ID numbers that helped put names to victims, he said.

Far from over

The eight new deaths confirmed Thursday brought the total to 31. Most of the fires, and the deaths, were in the coastal region north of San Francisco that encompasses wine country. Four deaths came further inland in Yuba County.

While the Oakland Hills fire of 1991 killed 25 people by itself and the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933 killed 29, never in recorded state history have so many people been killed by a simultaneous series of fires, said Daniel Berlant, a deputy director with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Firefighters had reported modest gains against the blazes, but containment seemed nowhere in sight.

“We are not out of this emergency. We are not even close to being out of this emergency,” Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci told a news conference.

More than 8,000 firefighters were battling the blazes.

At least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed and an estimated 25,000 people forced to flee.

The wildfires continued to grow in size. A total count of 22 fires on Wednesday fell to 21 on Thursday because two large fires merged, state Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said.

The challenge of fighting the fires was compounded by the need for more help and the growing fatigue of firefighters who have been working for days.

“We have people that have been on that fire for three days who don't want to leave,” said Cal Fire's deputy incident commander in Napa, Barry Biermann. “At some point, you hit a road block.”