SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The death toll rose to 31 Thursday as California authorities began assessing the damage from the deadliest spate of wildfires to strike the state in more than 80 years, even while the blazes continued to consume swaths of land and drive people from their homes.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials said some 190,000 acres had been scorched across the state by Thursday afternoon as high winds and dry conditions spread the fires with frightening speed. Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, sustained the most damage, with 17 people confirmed dead and 400 reported missing; in the city of Santa Rosa, officials reported nearly 3,000 homes destroyed.
Taken together, the blazes have killed more people than the last disastrous fire to strike the state, the Oakland Hills fire in 1991. The death toll now exceeds that of the 1933 Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles — and is likely to rise as authorities continue to explore the wreckage.
“We all have suffered a trauma here, and we’re going to be a long time in recovering from this incident,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey told reporters Thursday afternoon. “The city of Santa Rosa has suffered a serious blow in these fires.”
[Apocalyptic images show the devastation caused by deadly wine-country fires]
Even as emergency personnel battled some two dozen blazes, authorities began facing questions about the cause of the most damaging fire, in Sonoma, and whether they did enough to warn vulnerable residents as the flames edged nearer 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.
The National Weather Service provided a morsel of good news Thursday, reporting that the gusts that fueled the blazes and made them harder to fight had died down and were projected to stay light through Friday. The respite was expected to be brief, however, as high north winds were expected to kick up over the weekend.
The news was otherwise grim. Sonoma County Sheriff Robert 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.”
Ten of the 17 county’s fatalities have been identified, with two confirmed 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. Many were in their 70s and 80s.
Of 1,100 missing-person reports in the county, more than 745 had been found safe, he said. The whereabouts of 400 were still unknown, although it is possible that a number of them were found but not reported to authorities. Others may be out of touch because of power outages and downed cell towers.
Mike Mohler, Cal Fire battalion chief, said investigators are looking into reports of downed power lines Sunday night to determine whether they caused some of the wildfires.
The utility PG&E put out repeated warnings to its customers on Sunday as heavy winds battered the region.
“High winds expected. Be alert near fallen trees/branches. Report downed lines to 911,” PG&E tweeted several times. “Always assume that a fallen power line is live.”
[Mapping the wildfires in Northern California’s wine country]
PG&E spokeswoman Fiona Chan said in an email that the company is focused on “life safety” and restoring service.
“We aren’t going to speculate about any of the causes of the fires,” she said. “We will support the reviews by any relevant regulator or agency.”
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.
A county official told the San Francisco Chronicle that it chose not to send out a countywide alert to cellphones out of fear the message could incite panic and clog roadways.
State emergency operations officials said alerts were a local responsibility and they would not second-guess the decisions of county leaders because each jurisdiction faced unique circumstances as the fires progressed.
In untouched parts of Northern California, fear and uncertainty rippled through many communities as people wondered if they would be struck next.
The resort area of Calistoga was a ghost town Thursday after authorities ordered everyone to evacuate and warned that those who stayed put could be subject to arrest.
In Petaluma, about 20 miles south of Santa Rosa, officials on Thursday had not issued any evacuation alerts. But nerves frayed as a smoky haze filled the air from not-so-distant fires, leading some people to wear masks or wrap their faces in bandannas.
The town has become a haven for many of the people who have evacuated from other scorched communities. In the historic downtown, McNear’s Mystic Theatre — a music hall that plays host to folk musicians, metal bands and Michael Jackson tribute shows — had been transformed into a makeshift evacuation center, complete with a children’s play area and buffet.
“There’s a degree of risk for everyone right now until the fires are contained,” said Faith Moody, the theater’s general manager, who said her own home in Santa Rosa was “so far” still standing. “The truth is that all it takes is for the winds to pick up heavily. Things can change so fast.”
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.
The fire hopped over Highway 101, taking out an Applebee’s, a McDonald’s and an Arby’s. It left a Taco Bell standing, then beelined for the community of wood-framed homes about two miles north of downtown. It has approximately 200 homes, and almost all of them are piles of ash.
The fire burned so severely that it incinerated garages and melted the paint and tires off the cars inside. The charred remnants of one house bled into another, with only addresses painted on curbs to distinguish one plot from another.
Paul DiStanislao, who has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years, stood in his driveway Thursday morning 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.”
Kristine Phillips, Abigail Hauslohner and Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.
We saw the glow of fire in the distance. Four hours later, it was at our front door.
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