The death toll continued its grim rise Friday across three counties, including Sonoma, where firefighters made progress in their fifth day battling unpredictable and dangerous blazes threatening communities stretching from Geyserville in the north to eastern Santa Rosa and Sonoma in the south.
The daytime firefight played out under a foreboding blanket of thick gray smoke that spread south across the entire Bay Area, turning the air fouler than it’s ever been. By nightfall, winds were predicted to pick up under deteriorating conditions, with forecast gusts of up to 50 mph — the strongest since the wind-whipped firestorm that began Sunday night.
As many as 50,000 people in Sonoma County — 10 percent of the population — remained under evacuation orders.
Nineteen people have been reported dead in the county and 35 overall in four Northern California counties ravaged by wildfire since last weekend. In Mendocino County, eight people have died, and the number of victims in Napa and Yuba counties rose to four each on Friday. Together, the disaster amounts to the deadliest group of wildfires in state history.
Despite the major gains made by firefighters Friday, the expected winds could pose peril for urban and rural areas across the region. By 10:30 p.m., firefighters were still bracing for the winds’ anticipated arrival.
“They’re saying it’s going to be different at 3 a.m.,” said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who is helping manage the county’s fires. “I’m hoping our meteorologist is wrong.”
Gov. Jerry Brown, joined by California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, was set to visit Sonoma County this afternoon.
The fires burning in Sonoma County and stretching into neighboring counties Friday night totaled 92,370 acres.
Buildings under threat
Throughout the county, the fires threaten 33,943 buildings. More than 2,800 homes have been destroyed in Santa Rosa alone, according to the city.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said the Tubbs fire that burned through the city on Monday morning destroyed nearly 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock and caused at least $1.2 billion in damage. It has scorched 35,270 acres and continued to move north from Napa County into southern Lake County. Containment was at 44 percent.
“It’s everywhere. Nobody escaped,” said Marrianne McBride, CEO of Sonoma County’s Council on Aging, where at least six employees lost homes in the fire. “If you didn’t personally lose your home, you have people who are close to you that did.”
Nuns fire the largest
The largest fire in Sonoma County, the Nuns fire, continued to burn on both sides of Sonoma Valley. At the north end, firefighters lit a backfire near Trione-Annadel State Park to halt the fire’s forward progress. At the south end, crews continued their work to protect the eastern edge of Sonoma, where an advisory evacuation remained in place.
At the end of the day, the fire had burned 46,000 acres, an increase of 2,500 acres, but fronts in Bennett Valley and Oakmont largely held on Friday. Containment was at 10 percent.
Susan Gardner parked along the nearly empty Highway 12 Friday afternoon, anxiously eying the closure at Madrone Road that blocked her from reaching her Kenwood home. Like many others, she fled in a hurry days earlier, escaping with her cat and some clothes through a firestorm that rained embers on her car.
Kenwood and surrounding areas remain under mandatory evacuation.
“Every day I come here,” Gardner said, standing on the side of the road as smoke blotted out the sun.
Pocket fire grows
In northern Sonoma County, the Pocket fire in the Mayacamas Mountains east of Geyserville took off in two directions Friday and grew by 1,000 acres. One front was moving toward western Lake County and the other toward Alexander Valley, where authorities imposed a mandatory evacuation along five miles of Highway 128 north of Chalk Hill Road. That stretch includes Jimtown, with its small country store and cafe and the adjacent Hawkes winery tasting room.
“People are trying to be optimistic,” said Domenica Catelli, co-owner and chef at Catelli’s, the Geyserville restaurant started by her grandparents in 1936. The town with a one-block city center is home to 1,600 people. “Folks who’ve been around for generations feel the town will pull through.”
But Catelli, who works until 3 a.m. and goes home to Windsor, has moments of doubt when she heads back to the restaurant several hours later. “I wonder if the town’s still going to be there,” she said.
Cadaver dogs searching
In Santa Rosa, search teams, some with dogs and drones, spent hours scouring the burnt landscape of the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park, largely reduced to ash early this week. They found one person’s remains, according to Monterey County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Joe Moses, who was the search operations chief for the operation.
In the wake of Sonoma County fires, 235 people remain unaccounted for, Sheriff Rob Giordano said Friday evening.
There have been 1,485 reports of missing people in Sonoma County and 1,250 have been located and are safe, he said.
Looting has not been a major problem, the sheriff said, reporting five arrests by deputies of people suspected of looting. Santa Rosa police reported three arrests.
Anxious return home
In Mendocino County, where firefighters continued to battle flames in remote Potter Valley, some residents of nearby Redwood Valley were allowed back to their homes to check for damage and start the painstaking recovery.
As anxious evacuees streamed up East Road, past burned-out ranches and scorched vineyards, sheriff’s deputies searched the surrounding hills for more bodies. The hardest hit areas were Tomki Road and a neighborhood on Fisher Lake Drive reduced to a collection of bare chimneys, torched cars and ash-covered debris.
Before confirming the fate of their places, some weary residents gathered outside Redwood Valley Market to pick up supplies and commiserate.
“It’s all gone,” said Brandi Ellison, whose home in the 10000 block of East Road was destroyed. “Everything I own is lost.”
The Mendocino County coroner identified two more of the eight people who have died in a wildfire in Redwood Valley. Roy Howard Bowman, 87, and Irma Elsie Bowman, 88, were found in the remains of their destroyed home in the 4000 block of Fisher Lake Drive.
Victims ID’d in Napa County
Adding to the death toll from the Atlas fire in Napa County, the remains of retired doctor George Chaney, 89, and Edward Stone, 79, were recovered from their Atlas Peak Road home on Thursday during a search resulting from concerns about their whereabouts, Napa County officials said.
Two other Atlas Peak Road residents, Charles Rippey, 100, and his wife of 75 years, Sara Rippey, 98, also died in the fire.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has suspended all noncriminal immigration enforcement operations in areas impacted by fires across Northern California
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, urged residents, regardless of immigration status, to seek shelter and assistance and follow public safety and evacuation warnings, without any threat of action by ICE.
Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said in interviews with two Spanish-language radio stations that shelters “are accepting everybody.”
Gore said he hopes to get bilingual interpreters at shelters and at the county emergency operations center.
FEMA set to open center
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was set to open a relief center this morning in downtown Santa Rosa, on the first floor of The Press Democrat building at 427 Mendocino Ave.
The center, scheduled to open at 9 a.m., will provide fire victims a one-stop shop for obtaining personal documents, filing insurance claims, obtaining a driver’s license and other items. Representatives of local, county, state and federal governments will be available.
A newly launched FEMA assistance program for North Bay fire victims includes money for temporary housing, medical, dental and funeral expenses as well as loans and grants to rebuild. To apply go to disasterassistance.gov.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, announced Friday the Internal Revenue Service’s decision to extend the deadline to file certain individual and business tax returns for victims of the wildfires in Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties.
The IRS has decided to extend the deadline for various tax filling and payment deadlines to Jan. 31, 2018 for many who have been devastated by the fires.
The largest school district in Sonoma County, Santa Rosa City Schools, canceled all classes next week. The district, which serves 16,400 students, has not set a date to reopen, district spokeswoman Beth Berk said.
Santa Rosa Junior College will remain closed through Tuesday at all locations, except for the Public Safety Training Center in Windsor, which will resume programs on Monday.
More than 200 SRJC students and staff have lost their homes and hundreds have evacuated, spokeswoman Ellen Maremont Silver said in a press release.
Sutter Hospital, which evacuated patients and shuttered its doors early Monday, anticipates re-opening no earlier than Wednesday, depending on progress with inspections, restocking, staffing and cleaning, according Shaun Ralston, a hospital spokesman.
Staff writers Paul Payne, J.D. Morris, Nick Rahaim and Hannah Beausang contributed to this report.