California wildfire death toll rises to 36 as dangerous winds return

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Nearly a week after flames began fanning across Northern California’s wine country, firefighters have made progress in containing the deadly wildfires even as high winds threaten to return and spark another round of conflagrations.

In an ominous Friday-afternoon bulletin, the National Weather Service warned that winds are expected to increase dramatically Friday night throughout Northern California, noting that the dangerous conditions will continue “at least through Saturday.”

An enormous swath of the state is under a red flag warning.

“If any new fires start, they could spread extremely rapidly,” the NWS said. Dangerous winds and extremely dry “fuels” on the ground “also could cause problems with the current wildfires and the firefighters trying to suppress them,” the NWS noted.

Even as the fire still burns across hundreds of acres, the horrific scale of death and destruction is coming into focus.

At least 36 people have been confirmed dead in four counties, many of them elderly, some burned to ashes. One victim was 14 years old.

Taken together, the disastrous blazes — more than 20 in all since Sunday, including at least six in Sonoma County — have killed more people than any other California wildfire on record.

Hundreds are still missing on Friday. Statewide, an estimated 5,700 structures have been destroyed, including whole neighborhoods reduced to smoldering rubble. About 90,000 people have been displaced by the fires, officials say.

“I don’t think anyone can comprehend the amount of damage,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s devastating. I’ve only driven maybe 5 percent of the fire area. . . . I don’t even think I understand what the damage toll is going to be, and I have a better handle on it than most.”

Firefighters have made some significant gains. As of Friday evening, some of the deadliest fires in Sonoma and Napa counties were nearly 50 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“We’re making a lot better progress today,” said Steve Crawford, a Cal Fire operations chief for the Tubbs fire in Sonoma County. “We told the guys, ‘Get the boots on the ground. Do hard work today and by this evening when this wind comes up, hopefully we’ll be ahead of the power curve.’”

As blazes are extinguished, counties have been preparing to get people back to evacuated areas. 

“We don’t want to keep people out of their homes one minute longer than we have to,” Cal Fire Deputy Chief Bret Gouvea said.

Gov. Jerry Brown and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala D. Harris will visit the disaster zone in Sonoma County Saturday afternoon.

Even as emergency personnel battled the fires in and around wine country, authorities began facing questions about the cause of the most damaging blaze, in Sonoma, and whether they did enough to warn vulnerable residents as the flames edged closer to populated areas.

The scrutiny marks the next phase of a disaster that erupted seemingly out of nowhere Sunday night, prompting panic among residents who had no idea that a fire was bearing down on them and emergency workers who said they were stunned at the speed with which the fire progressed.

Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, sustained the most damage, with 19 people confirmed dead and 256 still reported missing. The fires have destroyed nearly 3,000 homes and caused $1.2 billion in damage in Santa Rosa, the county seat and gateway to the wine-tourism industry.

Officials say this is now the deadliest week of wildfires in state history. The death toll is certain to rise as authorities — some accompanied by cadaver dogs — continue to explore the wreckage.

As areas become safer to enter, Giordano said deputies had begun the task of searching for the missing and the dead, with bodies showing up in a variety of conditions.

“We have recovered people where their bodies are intact,” he said, “and we have recovered people where there’s just ash and bone.”

The majority of the victims who have been identified were elderly, except for one: A 14-year-old who was found near his family’s home in Mendocino County. Kai Logan Shepherd was running away from the fire when he was killed, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.

Of the 10 Sonoma County victims who have been named so far, two of whom were identified through medical devices or implants, two through dental records, another by a distinctive tattoo, while others were matched with fingerprints or visuals and other investigative means.

Most were from Santa Rosa, and all were older adults, with an average age of 75, the sheriff’s office said. The youngest, Michael John Dornbach, was 57; the oldest, Arthur Tasman Grant, was 95. In neighboring Napa County, an elderly couple who had just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary were killed on Sunday. Another elderly couple in their 80s were also killed in Mendocino County.

A search and rescue team looks for bodies at a property where a person was reported missing in Santa Rosa. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Sonoma County spokesman Scott Alonso said it’s not yet clear why the victims were unable to escape the fire. But, he said: “Folks who are elderly have some mobility challenges and are wheelchair-bound. They may not have access to a car. We had calls right when the fires were going on . . . folks needed rides. They needed rides to get out of those mandatory evacuation zones.”

Of 1,485 missing-person reports in Sonoma County, 1,250 had been found safe by Friday afternoon, said Giordano, the sheriff. The whereabouts of the 235 missing were still unknown, although it is possible that a number of them were found but not yet reported to authorities. Others may be out of touch because of power outages and downed cell towers. In most cases, people were removed from a missing-persons list after authorities received calls from families saying they’ve been found.

State and county officials faced increasing scrutiny Thursday over how they alerted residents to the fast-moving fires.

In Sonoma County, law enforcement officials said they used a Reverse 911 system to call residents’ landlines to evacuate. The county also sent out alerts through a voluntary text-message system. As of June, however, just 10,500 of the county’s half-million residents had signed up for the alerts.

Alonso, the county spokesman, said officials chose to not send out a countywide alert to cellphones out of fear such a message would incite panic and clog roadways.

“We wanted to target specific neighborhoods that were under fire,” he said. “If an all-county emergency evacuation was issued, the roads would’ve been jammed [and] our emergency responders would’ve had difficulty getting to where they need to go to evacuate people.”

Meanwhile, in the blackened Coffey Park subdivision of Santa Rosa on Thursday, people sifted through the ashes of what used to be their homes or stood shocked to discover their houses had somehow survived.

“I’ve been through worse,” Sue Fellbaum said. She dug through the wreckage of the house where she had lived in for 28 years, raising two children, surviving breast cancer and losing a husband to brain cancer.

Paul DiStanislao, who has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years, stood in his driveway and marveled at the smoking ruin that was once a neighbor’s home.

Like so many here, he fled the neighborhood around 2 a.m. Monday after awaking to find it enveloped in an eerie red glow and a shower of hot embers.

Desperate to know what became of his house, he had found a way into his neighborhood, which had been cordoned off by the authorities. He was stunned to discover that the fire had stopped five houses short of his home.

The flames had somehow lodged someone’s garage door on top of a streetlight. The charred husk of a Harley-Davidson lay in the middle of a street, one of an endless stream of burned-out vehicles.

But a few feet from the fire line, at DiStanislao’s house, even the grass was spared.

“Why am I here?” he asked rhetorically. “Had it jumped the highway a little bit farther, my house would be gone.”

Wootson and Bonos reported from Santa Rosa, Calif; Wong and Phillips reported from Washington. Breena Kerr and Alissa Greenberg in Santa Rosa, Calif.; Josh du Lac, Abigail Hauslohner and Aaron C. Davis in Washington contributed to this report.

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