Death toll from fires jumps to 31; names of 10 victims released – Los Angeles Times
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 press 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 total 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.
The wildfires in wine country together have now exceeded the death toll in 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.
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
The searches can take hours, and identification will be difficult, Giordano said at the briefing.
“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, noting that in the latter cases, sometimes the only way to identify someone is through a medical device, like 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.
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.”
At the same time Thursday, 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.
“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 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.