(TNS) - As firefighters make progress containing one of the largest wildfires burning in Northern California, the death toll and number of missing continues to climb.
Thursday, authorities announced four more fatalities, two in Mendocino County and two in Sonoma County, bringing the overall death toll related to the wildfires burning in Northern California to 26.
Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said the number of people killed in his jurisdiction climbed to 14 as of Thursday morning. Giordano said 463 people remain missing in Sonoma County, and search-and-rescue teams are now using cadaver dogs for targeted searches of missing persons.
“We’re moving into a recovery phase,” Giordano said. “We’re working the missing persons through their families, through conventional contacts, phones, other addresses. As that case leads us to no further information, our next step is going to that person’s house in the fire zone and trying to find them.
“We’re doing targeted searches…. That’s how a majority of the recoveries have been made.”
Giordano warned that identifying the deceased could take some time, saying they have already found bodies “that were nothing more than ash and bones.” One identification was made through an ID number on a prosthetic hip replacement.
“That is what we’re faced with in this fire,” Giordano said.
Thursday Cal Fire reported progress containing one of the largest blazes, the Tubbs Fire in Napa County, which is now 10 percent contained. Despite the news, evacuations remain in effect for thousands of residents in several counties in Northern California, including Napa and Sonoma.
More than 182,000 acres have burned in wildfires throughout Northern California, the bulk of that damage in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
Although a red flag warning remains in effect for the North Bay through Thursday afternoon, experts with the National Weather Service said wind speeds should diminish by late Thursday morning, which should help the estimated 8,000 firefighters battling wildfires in Northern California.
“The diminishing wind speeds will be a positive,” said Roger Gass, a meteorologist with the weather service. “That said, diminishing winds could allow smoke to settle down in the valley as well.”
Smoke blown from the North Bay fires filled skies Wednesday as far away as the Delta, and the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, pushing through the East Bay and South Bay, recording the highest smoke concentrations seen in the region in modern times. Many schools called off outdoor activities, and even the Oakland Raiders cut short practice because the air was so bad.
Gass does not foresee air quality improving throughout the Bay Area anytime soon.
Winds from the north are expected to grow stronger again Friday and perhaps push more smoke south through the Bay Area. Gass said there might be periods of better air quality through Sunday, followed by stretches of poor air quality.
“The reality is we’re not going to see a strong onshore flow that will push smoke out of the area at least through the weekend,” Gass said.
Gass did offer a dose of possible good news for firefighters battling the numerous blazes in the North Bay: a chance of rain Wednesday into Thursday.
“It’s something we’re going to keep a close eye on,” Gass said. “It doesn’t look like a widespread event. If anything, light precipitation.
“But it would definitely be good news for the firefighting effort.”
Wednesday, fire and police officials expected the number of deaths to rise as they continue to search for more than 250 people reported missing and struggle to get a hold on out-of-control blazes that threatened the Napa County resort town of Calistoga and crept toward western Fairfield in Solano County.
The destruction of more than 3,500 homes and businesses and death toll combined put the fires among the most catastrophic in the state’s history. About 4,400 people remain in shelters, thousands more either lost homes or cannot return to them.
Hot spots and fires that shifted and grew by the minute continued to slow home-by-home searches, particularly in the neighborhoods of Santa Rosa wiped off the map. Officers in Sonoma County — where 14 deaths have occurred — have received 600 reports of missing people, but located 315 of them as of Wednesday evening.
When the fires first ignited Sunday night in Sonoma County, emergency officials considered sending a mass alert to cell phones in the region to warn of the rapidly spreading flames, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. If utilized, the Wireless Emergency Alert would have notified tens of thousands of residents of Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol and Sonoma, according to the Chronicle.
County officials decided against it, worried it might create widespread panic and hinder the ability of first responders to combat the blazes, according to the Chronicle. Instead, emergency officials targeted residents “who specifically needed help” via radio broadcasts, robo-calls to residents, email and text alerts and physically knocking on doors or announcing orders through P.A. systems.
The mood grew increasingly intense in the picturesque town of Calistoga as residents waited to see whether the wildfire will come raging into town, as it has so many structures in nearby cities. At 2:45 p.m., evacuations were ordered in the town of about 5,200 residents.
Mayor Chris Canning said the fire was coming back over Mount St. Helena with enough speed to possibly double back on his town.
“We no longer have a choice in this matter, and we’re not willing to take chances with our residents,” the mayor said.
After 8 p.m., Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office issued a mandatory evacuation order for eastern Sonoma Valley along Castle Road north of Lovall Valley Road and 7th Street East north of Lovall Valley Road.
Residents in western Fairfield were also encouraged on Wednesday to evacuate.
In Calistoga, Ricardo Vera, 41, was throwing a tent, backpack and jackets into the trunk of his white sedan Wednesday morning, as smoke clouded the air and tiny pieces of ash began to swirl in the breeze. He packed up his wife and two daughters and fled to his sister-in-law’s home in Vallejo around 2:30 a.m., after a friend texted him and warned him that the blaze was coming closer.
But he forgot a few items and returned to his home at Lincoln Avenue and Lake Street later in the morning to grab them.
“I came to get little Stella because we couldn’t find her,” Vera said, gesturing to a small, gray cat in his driveway, near where two Oakland police officers held a checkpoint, warning drivers away from the approaching blaze.
At 11 a.m., a few hours before the mandatory evacuation order was issued, the fate of Vera’s home and the one next door belonging to his brother were out of his hands.
“We’ve been praying,” he said.
By Wednesday evening, the wind had pushed the flames north of Calistoga into a hilly area that was nearly inaccessible, making the situation even more difficult for firefighters.
Cal Fire Captain Joshua Duport, of Santa Rosa, was waiting with his crew Wednesday evening on the side of State Route 29, trying to figure out how to get to the fire burning in the hills below him. From the road, multiple columns of thick smoke could be seen rising from the trees, while helicopters towing buckets flew to and fro, attempting to douse the blaze from the air.
“There’s no roads to it right now,” Duport said.
The challenging terrain made an already difficult situation worse. The strong winds that have fueled the many Wine Country fires are a firefighter’s worst nightmare, Duport said.
“The fires are too big,” he said. “There’s not enough resources.”
Though air district officials said ocean breezes helped clear up the air, ash reportedly rained down in West Contra Costa, and 80 flights were canceled at San Francisco International Airport.
Statewide, 21 fires are burning. At an afternoon news conference, Cal Fire, the head of the state’s Office of Emergency Services, and Gov. Jerry Brown said out-of-state help from Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Nevada was on the way, as are additional soldiers and airmen with the California National Guard. A total of 100 aircraft, 500 engines and 8,000 firefighters are also being brought in from fighting a Southern California fire.
Two California Highway Patrol helicopters rescued 44 people, five dogs and two cats.
Brown called the fire one of the most serious in California’s long history in battling wildfires.
“That’s the way it is with a warming climate, dry weather and reducing moisture,” Brown said. “These kinds of catastrophes have happened, and they will continue to happen.”
Staff writers Jason Green, Joseph Geha and Denis Cuff contributed to this report.
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