Death toll from Northern California fires jumps to 31; names of 10 victims released

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.

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.

The winds can reignite embers and send them hurtling through the air. If they land in areas not yet burned, there would be little that firefighters could do to stop them from setting off new conflagrations, officials said.

“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.

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UPDATES:

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.

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