California Fire; Death toll rises to 23, as fires continue to rage

California Fire; Death toll rises to 23, as fires continue to rage

The death toll from the historic fires raging across Northern California climbed to 23 on Wednesday as flames continued to outrace fire crews, forcing more evacuations in Wine Country towns, and setting off fears that separate blazes could merge.

For a third day, 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.

After the Tubbs fire swallowed up entire Santa Rosa neighborhoods earlier in the week, its wrath carried north toward smaller Calistoga, fueled by 40 mph gusts, low humidity and vegetation still dry from the state’s five-year drought.

Cal Fire officials expected by the end of Wednesday that fires to the east, west, and north of Napa could meet, forming one ferocious blaze.

“This is what we’ve said every morning, all week since this began. We are not out of the woods, and we are not going to be out of the woods for a great number of days to come,” said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

More after this ad..

In all, 170,000 acres have burned, including more than 43,000 acres in Napa Valley’s Atlas fire and 28,000 acres in Santa Rosa’s Tubbs fire. Containment of all of the fires is low, between 2 and 3 percent, fire officials said Wednesday afternoon.

And yet again, the effects could be felt throughout the Bay Area. Smoke blown from the North Bay fires filled skies 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.

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. Deaths in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Yuba counties rose from 17 to 21, as 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 at least 13 of the deaths occurred — have received 600 reports of missing people, but located 315 of them as of Wednesday evening.

With resources dedicated to saving lives, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said instead of sifting through rubble and debris, a 30-person search team is using police detective work to locate the missing. They are tracking down relatives, friends and searching 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.”

More after this ad…


It could be that many of the remaining people reported missing are unable to contact relatives, he said, but cautioned that “when we start doing searches, I would expect that number to go up.” Evacuees in Sonoma County will not be able to return to their homes until Monday at the earliest, Giordano said.

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 and the town of Middleton, where a 2015 fire destroyed half the town, 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, 22 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.”

Mary Greeley News