After four days of terrorizing Wine Country and surrounding regions, the Northern California wildfires on Thursday became the deadliest in state history, with 31 confirmed fatalities and more expected.
The most destructive of those, the Tubbs fire, killed at least 15 people, and new figures told of its destruction. Santa Rosa lost 2,834 homes and approximately 400,000 square feet of commercial space, and Mayor Chris Coursey expects the numbers to grow.
“We all have suffered a trauma here,” the mayor said. He is said it will take time to recover “from this incident. The city of Santa Rosa has suffered a serious blow.”
Even as fire resources pour in from out of state, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott expects the fires to continue to burn “erratically” and “have the potential to shift in any direction at any time.”
Over the day, the number of deaths rose from 24 to 31, as the toll increased in Sonoma County to 17, to eight in Mendocino, and to four in Yuba. Two others died in Napa County, and Yuba County Sheriff Steven Durfor said another burn victim could perish.
The fires’ terrifying wrath rages on. While Cal Fire ranks the deadliest fires in modern history by singular events, the multiple fires burning at the same time combine as the deadliest.
Considered together, the 16 Northern California fires raging this week have now claimed more lives than the 1933 Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles, which killed 29, and the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, where 25 perished.
The tales of this week are growing increasingly tragic. As the Redwood Valley fire swept through Mendocino County, the Shepherd family hurried to escape, first by car and then foot when the vehicles caught fire. Kai Shepherd, a 14-year-old who loved the San Francisco Giants and wrestling, did not make it out alive, his aunt Mindi Ramos said.
“The firestorm washed over them,” Ramos said.
His sister, Kressa, was so badly burned her legs were amputated below the knee at a Sacramento hospital where her mother, Sara, was also being treated. Jon Shepherd, Kai’s father, remains at a burn center in San Francisco, Ramos said. The family’s Redwood Valley home on West Road is gone.
“He could just see into people’s hearts, you know?” Ramos said of Kai. “He was a very sweet, loving, beautiful boy. It’s going to be a long road.”
In Sonoma County, sheriff crews and cadaver dogs began combing through rubble and charred remains, targeted searches of missing persons. The grim task of identifying the dead could take weeks or months, officials said. Some bodies already located “were nothing more than ash and bones,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said. 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.
By Thursday evening, officials said they had identified 10 of the 17 dead in Sonoma County.
Sonoma officials received 1,000 reports of missing persons, some duplicates, and by Thursday afternoon 603 people had been located, leaving 400 missing. With evacuees scattered throughout the Bay Area and beyond, the sheriff said damaged communication towers could be one reason people cannot reach relatives.
Of 77 cellular towers damaged, 64 were restored as of Thursday, state officials said.
Around the North Bay, people began returning to see if their homes were still standing, or if fire had consumed them. Retired Santa Rosa police Officer Sam Poueu found his police badge among the ashes of his family’s Larkfield home, according to the department.
In Napa, newlyweds Laura and Garrett Perdigao were among residents in evacuated areas anxious Thursday to see if their homes still stood. Authorities at a checkpoint said residents would be allowed in only to rescue pets and grab medications, and let the Perdigaos in so Laura could retrieve insulin for her diabetes. But they bent the rules for some other residents, including a man who was desperate to return to his property to finish his wine production.
The fire had consumed homes a few blocks from the Perdigaos’ home, but everything from the car on the street to the small fountain burbling in the front yard had escaped damage.
“I’m pretty stoked to see all of this intact,” 27-year-old Laura said.
For the first time all week, fire officials announced progress in 10 percent containment of the Tubbs Fire, which has grown to 34,270 acres.
The Atlas Fire in Napa County, the largest at 43,762, is 3 percent contained, while the Nuns and Norrbom fires merged in Sonoma County. Statewide, 21 fires, down one from Wednesday, are burning and Cal Fire officials expect conditions to worsen over the weekend. They are keeping a close watch on the city of Sonoma, Calistoga, Middletown, and Geyserville.
Conditions have proved difficult for the fire battle being waged on the ground and from the air. In high winds like the North Bay has seen in recent days, the fire retardant dropped by aircraft blows away, without effectively stopping the fire. And aircraft can’t go up when the smoke is so thick that visibility suffers.
Cal Fire Captain James Robbins has spent the past few days flying missions over Wine Country in a Super Huey helicopter, which tows a bucket capable of holding up to 324 gallons of water. The aircraft works in conjunction with the firefighters on the ground, dousing the flames in an attempt to slow their spread and give firefighters time to dig trenches and clear brush to form a line that can contain the blaze.
Pilot Todd Hudson, who has been flying missions with Robbins, is still wrapping his head around what the fires are doing to the area where he was born and raised.
“One of these fires would be mind-boggling, and there’s multiple fires,” he said. “It’s jaw-dropping.”
Air quality remained a concern throughout the region, as several schools and colleges closed and for a second day San Francisco International Airport canceled flights. Roger Gass, a meteorologist with the weather service, 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.
After days cooped up in their homes, Santa Rosa High School students Jack Stornetta, 17, and Dylan Leslie, 16, wore particle masks as they skateboarded past the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, hoping to get a better understanding of a fire that destroyed classmates’ homes.
“Honestly, I can’t wrap my mind around it yet,” Stornetta said. “It’s still sinking in.”
“We’ve been at home, waiting it out,” Leslie said.
Not far away, the Fountaingrove area, where homes, hotels and restaurants burned to the ground, lay desolate. In front of one house’s charred remains was a sign planted in the grass: “We will rebuild,” it read, with a heart.