SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) — The death toll from the devastating wine country fires climbed to 14 Thursday in Sonoma County with another 463 people listed as missing, authorities said.
Sheriff County Sheriff Robert Giordano said “target searches” using 30 search and rescue team members and cadaver dogs would begin within the burn area on Thursday.
“We are moving into a recovery phase,” he said. “What we are doing is, we are working the missing persons through their family, through conventional contacts, phones other addresses. As that case leads us to no further information — our next step is going that person’s house in the fire zone and try to find them.”
He said identifying the bodies was also proving to be a challenge because of the condition of the remains.
“This is going to be a long process,” he said.
The new deaths raises the number to 28 killed so far in the fire outbreak.
Meanwhile, a desperate battle was being waged early Thursday outside of the small wine county town of Geyserville, where firefighters were trying to halt the destructive advance of the Pocket Fire.
Late Wednesday night, most of the town’s residents were ordered out of their homes as the flames edged closer and closer.
“With the predicted winds, it (the fire) has Geyserville in it’s gun sights,” said Cal Fire’s Marshall Tuberville.
As dawn approached Thursday, winds were holding steady at 10-15 mph, fanning the flames. The now frightening calling card of a wild fire — an orange glow in the sky — could be seen from downtown Geyserville.
“There are homes on the bottom of the canyon and on the ridge,” Tuberville said. “That’s (defending those homes) what we are spending our time doing right now. We just don’t have the resources to be really effective stopping the forward spread of the fire.”
There was zero containment of the Pocket Fire as it had already consumed 4,000 acres.
Geyserville, like the entire burn area, was under a red flag warning Thursday until 5 p.m. The National Weather Service was predicting winds of 20-30 mph with even stronger gusts — a troubling forecast for firefighters.
Early Thursday the winds were not strong, but expected to increase with daylight and as the morning progressed.
To the southeast another battle was being waged. This one was with a monster named the Atlas Fire.
So far the blaze had devastated parts of Napa County — destroying wineries, houses, businesses and driving thousands from their homes — and now has marched into neighboring Solano County. The blaze was the largest of the wine county wildfires having consumed 42,349 acres and was just 3 percent contained.
The front lines Thursday were near Highway 221 — the Vallejo Highway — where the Atlas Fire was burning its way through the Skyline Wilderness Park. While no structures were threatened, there was plenty of fuel in the form of grass and brush to allow the blaze to pick up momentum.
The worry was the shifting winds would drive it back into Napa Cpunty toward areas that have been so far untouched by the wildfire outbreak.
To the north near the town of Calistoga, the Tubbs fire continued its advance from Sonoma County into Napa County. The blaze had consumed 27,363 acres and was 10 percent contained.
Calistoga, the historic resort town of wine tastings and hot springs with 5,300 residents, has been evacuated and sheriff’s deputies were patrolling the streets early Thursday protecting the abandoned homes and businesses from looters.
In a chilling warning Wednesday, the head of Cal Fire said he anticipated that at least the two major fires ablaze in the Napa Valley will merge into a single massive fire.
Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott told reporters the wildfires were a “critical, serious, catastrophic event” and then he issued the warning.
“We are concerned and anticipate that before the day is over several of these fires will merge into one fire,” he said. “If you look at the Napa Valley, we have fire on the ridge line to the east of town and to the west of town. And to the north. So a great deal of fire across all these landscapes.”
“Please pay close attention to evacuation orders,” he begged local residents. “It’s very dynamic. These fires are changing by the minute.”
The toll of the wine country fires stood at 28 dead, at least 285 missing, 129,000 acres burned and 3,500 homes and businesses destroyed. Those numbers will likely rise over the next week.
“The potential continues to exist for peril if folks don’t get out from in front of these fires,” Pimlott said.
The 22 fires in wine country spanned more than 265 square miles as they entered their fifth day, many of them completely out of control. Modern, strategic attacks that have kept destruction and death tolls low in recent years just haven’t worked against their ferocity.
“We are literally looking at explosive vegetation,” Pimlott said. “Make no mistake,” he later added, “this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event.”
The community of Boyes Hot Springs in Sonoma County also was told to clear out Wednesday, and the streets were quickly lined with cars packed with people fleeing.
“That’s very bad,” resident Nick Hinman said when a deputy sheriff warned him that the driving winds could shift the wildfires toward the town of Sonoma proper, where 11,000 people live. “It’ll go up like a candle.”
Air quality was also an issue as far away as San Jose as smoke from the blazes choked the Bay Area. Dozens of school districts and colleges across the region have cancelled classes for the remainder of the week because of the unhealthy air.
At San Francisco International Airport, the haze was so bad Wednesday that incoming flights were being delayed by 2 1/2 hours and as many as 80 flights were cancelled.