Killer wildfires continue to menace California’s wine country, with 26 dead and hundreds missing

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Firefighters work to contain a wildfire before winds were expected to pick up later in the day, on a ranch in Bennett Valley, California, on Oct 11, 2017. PHOTO: NYT

Local resident Wayne Reagan rides his bike with his dog Jay through a neighborhood totally destroyed by wildfire in Santa Rosa, California.

SANTA ROSA, California (WASHINGTON POST) - The winds that have fanned Northern California's wine-country wildfires are expected to be calmer through Friday (Oct 13), giving firefighters a badly needed break from the "red flag" conditions that have made this menacing arc of flames so deadly and destructive.

But for localities faced with a growing death toll, a rising number of missing people and relentless fires that show few signs of being tamed, any reprieve appears remote.

As the destruction entered its fifth day, officials focused their efforts on finding the dead and the missing. While dozens of fire crews go from house to house, searching for those who remain unaccounted for, others have cadaver dogs sniffing through the rubble.

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Wildfires are sweeping through northern California Wednesday with strong, dry winds expected to pick up later in the day and further fan an inferno that's already left at least 21 people dead and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.

Twenty-six people, more than half of them found in Sonoma County alone, have died.

"We've found bodies that were almost completely intact. We've found bodies that are nothing more than ashes and bones," Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said at a news conference on Thursday.

In some cases, bodies were only identified through ID cards found nearby.

"I'm sorry to have to tell you that, but that is what we're faced here, as far as identifying people and recovering people," Giordano said. "We will do everything in our power to locate all the missing people. I promise you we will handle the remains with care and get them to their loved ones."

As search and rescue teams gain access to "hot zones" that were immolated in the firestorm, officials expect to confirm more fatalities. The death toll in Sonoma County went up to 14 on Thursday, and Giordano said it would be "unrealistic" to think it won't rise further. Eight of the casualties were in Mendocino County, and two each in Yuba and Napa counties, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

About 900 people have been reported missing in Sonoma County, of whom about 460 remain unaccounted for as of Thursday morning.

"We're going to that person's house in the fire zone. We're doing targeted searches... teams of people searching for missing people," Giordano said. "That's how the majority of the recovery has been made so far."

These wildfires collectively are the deadliest in California's modern history, surpassing the Oakland Hills Fire that killed 25 in 1991.

The 21 fires currently burning across the northern part of the state have also destroyed more than 3,500 buildings and torched more than 77,000 hectares - a collective area nearly the size of New York City.

Thousands have fled their homes. In Sonoma County, nearly 4,000 are at two dozen evacuation centres; majority of whom are unlikely to be able to go home for many days. Evacuation zones also continue to expand. On Wednesday, the entire city of Calistoga in Napa County was evacuated.

"These fires are a long way from being contained, so we're doing to best we can people that have been displaced and help them to hopefully rebuild their lives" said Barry Dugan, a Sonoma County spokesman.

Nine fires are now burning in Sonoma and Napa counties, the heart of California's wine-growing industry. One of the biggest and by far the deadliest, the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma grew about 2,400ha overnight before conditions began to improve.

The National Weather Service said the calmer winds will last through Friday, giving fire crews a slim chance against the blazes that have mostly raged uncontrolled. But dry conditions, coupled with a new round of high winds expected this weekend, could further hamper containment efforts, officials said.

In many areas, crews who also are fire victims, have been working for days straight.

Keith Muelheim, Mike Stornetta and Jason Jones, firefighters in the town of Windsor in Sonoma County, estimated that they had been awake for more than 70 hours and did not eat for the first 16. For them, Tubbs Fire is a personal one. Stornetta's parents lost their house of 30 years, the house where he grew up, as a firestorm swept through their Santa Rosa neighbourhood earlier this week.

"Our first assignment was two blocks away," he said during a patrol. "While we were evacuating an elderly care facility home, we could see down into the glow of the neighbourhood where I knew my parents lived."

His parents were not home, Stornetta said, but his grandmother was housesitting and just barely escaped. His family lost everything, except the clothes they were wearing.

For Captain Greg McCollum of the Santa Rosa Fire Department, the sheer size and power of the Tubbs Fire has humbled him after 24 years on the job.

"This is a once-in-a-career fire," he said. "One of the other guys said it's a once-in-two-careers fire. Well, I'm no historian, but I know a damn big fire when I see one."

As thousands of firefighters work to contain the blazes, officials have started looking at what's ahead: Cleaning up the charred remains of thousands of structures, some of which could contain potentially hazardous materials.

"You can imagine what it's going to take," said Dugan, the Sonoma County spokesman. "You just take one area in Santa Rosa, the Coffey Park area. There's dozens if not hundreds of (destroyed) homes. That's a lot of cleanup and a lot of debris. Once the fire is under control, there'll still a lot of work to do."

He added: "This is going to be months and years of recovery for the county."

Amid these grim bulletins, the huge utility company PG&E acknowledged that the extreme winds late Sunday and early Monday had knocked trees into power lines in conditions conducive to wildfires.

"The historic wind event that swept across PG&E's service area late Sunday and early Monday packed hurricane-strength winds in excess of 75mph in some cases," said Ari Vanrenen, a PG&E spokeswoman, in a statement released after the San Jose Mercury News first reported on a possible link between the wildfires and the power grid.

"These destructive winds, along with millions of trees weakened by years of drought and recent renewed vegetation growth from winter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay," she said.

Mike Mohler, a Cal Fire battalion chief, said investigators are looking into a series of calls about infrastructure failure and downed power lines Sunday night in Sonoma County - and whether those may have caused some of the fires."Investigators are out there, trying to determine exactly if lines were down, how many and where they were," Mohler said.

PG&E has said that hundreds of its employees have been working with Cal Fire by de-energising some power lines to help with response efforts, the company said in a statement.

The utility company issued repeated warnings to its customers once heavy winds started battering the region Sunday morning. "High winds expected. Be alert near fallen trees/branches. Report downed lines to 911," PG&E tweeted several times.

Officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said they have yet to determine the cause of the fires.

Statewide, 8,000 firefighters are working to contain the fires, the worst of which are in Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties. In Sonoma County alone, more than a half-dozen separate wildfires have erupted, including one that started Wednesday.

In some areas in wine country, the smoke and haze is so thick that the sun is a faint orange sphere in the sky. Most stores are sold out of air filtration masks. People pumping gas, shopping for groceries or walking dogs look like carpenters or surgeons, depending on which type of mask they were able to pick up.

Families crowd areas off the highway, their cars packed with belongings. Highway 101 cuts through rolling hills that dominate the California coast, and entire landscapes are scarred black. In Santa Rosa, it is possible to trace the direction of the wind by which buildings were reduced to ashes and which remained untouched.

On Wednesday, Ameir Kazemi stared at the smoldering remains of his business, Mohawk Sign. It has been a Santa Rosa institution for 50 years, and Kazemi, 33, has owned it for a decade. Now, it's a pile of ashes and charred wood.

For several hours on Monday, Kazemi said local TV stations broadcast videos of his building on fire.

"It was pretty sickening," he said. "I just wanted to come see if there was any chance that anything survived - the artwork, 10 years' worth of stuff on my hard drive. It's all gone."

The fires have put a strain on federal resources, too. Coming on the heels of a string of catastrophic hurricanes, the California wildfires in total represent just one of 22 disasters that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is managing across the nation. Eighty-five per cent of Fema's 9,900 full-time employees are working "in the field," away from their assigned offices, agency spokesman Mike Cappannari said.

With some of the fires in the Sierras and Southern California nearing containment, Cal Fire is shifting resources - which include 73 helicopters and 30 air tankers - to the most dangerous fires in and around wine country.

The US Forest Service said it has dispatched 740 personnel.

"We are in a wickedly dangerous fire situation and when one of us needs help, all of us come," said Bob Baird, director of fire and aviation management for the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest region.

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