Santa Rosa: The death toll from raging California wildfires has risen to 31 as body recovery teamsused cadaver dogs to locate victims, making it the deadliestseries of blazes in the state’s history. The fires, which began on Sunday, have swept throughCalifornia’s wine country, leaving thousands of peoplehomeless and burning over 190,000 acres (76,000 hectares) ofland. Gusty winds yesterday were hampering the efforts of the8,000 firefighters battling 20 blazes, and weather conditionswere not forecast to improve. “What this means is that our fires will continue to burnerratically,” California fire chief Ken Pimlott told a newsconference.
“They have the potential to shift in any direction at any time. “We are a long way from being done with this catastrophe,” he said. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection(Cal Fire) announced yesterday that the fires have claimed 31lives, while Sheriff Rob Giordano of hard-hit Sonoma County said his department has received around 1,100 reports of missing persons. Of those, “745 of them, roughly, have been located safe,”w hile “we still have 400 outstanding,” Giordano said, noting that the actual figure may be smaller because there are sometimes duplicate reports. He said targeted body recovery efforts had begun in cases where all other leads were exhausted. “We’re moving into a recovery phase,” he said. “We have cadaver dogs up here that can basically scent bodies and help us find people.” Giordano warned that it was “going to be a slow
Giordano warned that it was “going to be a slow process” as fires continue to burn, and that identifying victims would be difficult. “Some of these remains are actually intact bodies — mucheasier to identify, much easier to get things from. Some ofthem are merely ashes and bones, and we may never get trulyconfirmative identification on ashes,” he said. In cases in which bodies have been badly burned, authorities have had to use dental records and serial numbers on medical devices to identify the dead. Asked if he expected the death toll to rise, Giordanoreplied: “I’d be unrealistic if I didn’t.”
The sheriff said that of the 17 people confirmed dead in Sonoma County, 10 have now been identified. “The youngest person on this list is 57 years old. Thebulk of them are in their 70s and 80s,” he said. As recovery teams fanned out searching for fire victims, evacuation orders were issued for towns in wine-producing Napa and Sonoma counties, where hundreds of people have alreadylost their homes to the fast-moving infernos. Residents of Calistoga, a resort town of some 5,000people in Napa, and Geyserville, a town of around 800 peoplein Sonoma, were told to leave and seek shelter elsewhere. Entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa have been reduced toashes, and evacuation orders were issued for additional partsof the devastated city of 175,000 people in Sonoma County.
Cal Fire meanwhile said that strong winds could spark newfires. “These winds will continue to challenge firefighters intheir efforts towards containment and will increase the riskfor new fires,” Cal Fire said. The National Weather Service said wind gusts of up to 80kilometers per hour were forecast in some areas and the”critical fire weather conditions” would continue into theweekend. Pimlott, the Cal Fire chief, said hundreds of fireengines and dozens of firefighting crews were being brought infrom other states. “Hour by hour more resources pour in,” he said. A state emergency management official said theauthorities were looking into bringing in firefighters from asfar away as Australia. David Shew, a veteran firefighter with Cal Fire, said thewildfires were like nothing he’s seen before.
“I’ve been with Cal Fire for 30 years and I’ve seen bigfires,” he told AFP. “But this is extraordinary, having thatmany and that large and going so fast.” Thousands of people have been left homeless and 25,000people have evacuated their homes in Sonoma County alone, according to officials. More than 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed, including several wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties, theheart of the state’s extensive wine production. President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster inCalifornia, freeing up federal funding and resources to helpfight the fires, and Governor Jerry Brown has declared a stateof emergency in eight counties.
Michael Desmond, 63, was among the hundreds of residentsof Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood who lost their homes. “I feel violated, like a thief came in,” said Desmond, who sobbed as he surveyed the rubble of the house where hegrew up. Forest fires are common in the western United Statesduring the summer but this year’s blazes in California are thedeadliest series of fires to hit the state. The Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles County in 1933killed at least 29 people, and 25 people died in the 1991Oakland Hills fire.