(TNS) — The death toll in the California wildfires rose to 21 Wednesday, and authorities fear more bodies may be located in the coming days.
There has been minimal containment of the fast-growing wildfires in California’s Wine Country, where officials are focused on saving lives and preserving property. Cal Fire officials fear that by day’s end Wednesday, multiple fires will merge.
The death toll rose Tuesday to 17 in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Yuba counties while officers in Sonoma County — where at least 11 of the deaths occurred — searched evacuation centers and homes for 670 people, finding 110 of them as of Tuesday evening.
Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said Wednesday he expects the number of people who perished in the fast-moving wildfires to increase.
Unable to search home-by-home through rubble and debris, authorities are using police detective work to locate the missing. A 30-person team is tracking down relatives, friends and searching through data to determine the last known whereabouts of each person unaccounted for, the sheriff said.
“The devastation is enormous,” Giordano said. “We can’t even get into most areas. The 11 we found have been found for other reasons. We’re not doing searches to find them. We’re getting called there for x, y or z and finding them.”
“So when we start doing searches, I would expect that number to go up,” he said.
Heavy winds are expected to return Wednesday afternoon and create a “very high fire danger.”
As of Wednesday morning, mandatory evacuation orders remained in effect in areas of Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties, according to Cal Fire. Authorities advised residents to head south through Marin County.
Early Wednesday, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office issued additional mandatory evacuation orders at the same time Cal Fire issued additional mandatory evacuations orders for areas of Calistoga and Geyserville.
As the fire climbed toward Calistoga, one Sonoma sheriff deputy drove through flames on Franz Valley Road, where the deputy was met by 35 people near Mark West Lodge, Sheriff Giordano said. A terrifying video posted to the sheriff’s Facebook page shows the deputy driving through the “ominous fire.”
“Those 35 people sat there and watched the fire burn around them,” Giordano said.
The sheriff said he expects no one will be allowed to return to evacuated areas of unincorporated Sonoma County until at least next week.
Cal Fire reports the Atlas Fire, burning in Napa and Solano counties, jumped overnight from 26,000 acres to 42,349 acres. The fire is just 3 percent contained. River Rock Casino, located just outside the evacuation area in Geyserville, early Wednesday morning tweeted that the casino has temporarily closed.
Tens of thousands of people remained out of their homes and more were evacuated Tuesday afternoon in northern Sonoma County and Napa County as the out-of-control firestorms have destroyed more than 2,000 structures and threaten many more.
Wednesday morning, ABC7 reported that seven Santa Rosa firefighters lost their homes in the wildfires.
The fires have burned more than 120,000 acres north of the Golden Gate.
As of late Tuesday, fire crews had little to no containment on the six major fires burning in Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties.
Calmer winds and higher humidity aided fire-suppression efforts Tuesday, but the winds are expected to turn gusty and swing 180 degrees on Wednesday, blowing from the northwest and challenging the containment lines that have been secured along the long southern flanks of the fires, said Neil Lareau of San Jose State University’s Department of Meteorology and Climate Science.
“It will let firefighters know whether their lines were good enough along parts of the fire or not,” Lareau said. “Hopefully, the answer is yes.”
The Wine Country wildfires have created the dirtiest air ever seen in the Bay Area, regulators said, as they intensified health warnings about the smoke and soot.
“This is similar to what you see in Beijing, China, in bad air days there,” said Tom Flannigan, spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
The smoke may linger for days, underscoring the need for people to stay indoors as much as possible and avoid strenuous exercise in smoky areas, air regulators cautioned.
In Mendocino — a coastal county famed for its pristine beaches and redwoods — the fire “was random and cruel,” said Alison de Grassi, a longtime resident who said she had never seen anything like it.
“One woman learned that her home was still standing, but her farm was gone,” said de Grassi, a spokeswoman for the Mendocino County Tourism Commission.
The fires also destroyed a popular Jewish camp in Santa Rosa, according to KTVU. Employees at Camp Newman, which operates year-round, did salvage holy Torah scrolls, according to KTVU.
At a news conference Tuesday morning, officials with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Cal Fire and other agencies reported that 17 fires statewide had burned a combined 115,000 acres and sent 3,200 evacuees to 28 shelters — and that the major fires in Napa and Sonoma were zero percent contained. Some 4,000 people are battling the fires, including crews from Nevada and the U.S. Forest Service. Air tankers dropped 266,000 gallons of retardant from the skies Monday.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday approved a major disaster declaration, clearing the way for federal help with the disaster, saying that “the federal government will stand with the people of California. And we will be there for you in this time of terrible tragedy and need.”
Most of the fatalities reported so far have been from Sonoma County — 11 total, including four new deaths added Tuesday — after flames from the wind-fueled Tubbs Fire scorched entire housing developments and burned businesses to the ground in downtown Santa Rosa.
The fires also claimed the lives of two people in Napa County, three in Mendocino County and one in Yuba County, according to Cal Fire.
The conditions are not expected to get better for firefighters as forecasters from the National Weather Service are predicting a spike in winds blowing from the northeast for the North Bay, though gusts won’t be nearly as strong as those that fanned several fast-moving and devastating fires Sunday night into Monday morning.
“It’s not going to be anywhere what we saw,” said Brian Garcia, a meteorologist with the weather service. “But because there is fire on the ground, because there are areas still smoldering, because there are still embers unattended, this wind could feed” additional fires, “sending those embers out in the fuels to kick up again.”
“These embers can twist and turn and wind up in other areas that might not be in the direction of the winds,” Garcia said.
Tuesday, the weather service issued a red flag warning for the North Bay mountains between 5 p.m. Wednesday and 5 p.m. Thursday. A red flag warning, which means any wildfires that spark will spread rapidly, is also in effect for the East Bay hills between 11 p.m. Wednesday and 5 p.m. Thursday.
Santa Rosa police on Tuesday issued an urgent evacuation warning for anyone remaining in the Oakmont neighborhood. Officials also evacuated areas near the parklands in eastern and northern Santa Rosa.
Among those who lost their homes are Raiders legend Cliff Branch, who said he fled his Santa Rosa house at 1:45 a.m. Monday after an early-morning call from his lawyer warning him the fire was “raging like Usain Bolt.”
“I don’t know, man, the wrath of God is not very happy,” Branch said. “We’ve had hurricanes three weeks in a row, an earthquake in Mexico City, and then this fire.”
In neighborhood after neighborhood, Wine Country residents returned home Tuesday to find utter devastation. Bleary-eyed and clutching a styrofoam cup, Napa resident Justo Perez surveyed the contents of the car his neighbor loaned him as he fled flames surrounding his home on Atlas Peak Road.
There’s nothing left of his two homes in the area. Also gone, he said, are his 2016 Corvette, van, Harley motorcycle and other “toys.”
For Perez and his neighbor, Richard Clark, now comes the difficult task of rebuilding. There are insurance companies to call, doctors to visit and the pressing question of, “What now?”
With limited cell service and power down in many places, residents whose homes were spared are finding it hard to return, especially since most homes in the hills use wells. Without power, they have no water. That was the case with Atlas Peak Road residents Glenn and Maria Ng. They found their house standing on Monday but don’t know when they will be able to go home for good. Still, they said it was a relief to see their house spared.
“It was just plain lucky,” Glenn Ng said.
They spent the night in their camper, which they set up on a church’s property.
Another Atlas Peak Road resident, Richard Clark, said Tuesday he still hadn’t seen the fire’s destruction and has no idea what will be left of his home.
“I want to go up and see what’s there,” he said, “and I don’t want to go, you know?”
Staff writers Lisa Krieger, Denis Cuff, Jerry McDonald, Jason Green, The Press-Democrat and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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