Fires grow in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties as death toll rises

Forecast gusts of up to 60 mph tonight stoked fears of another firestorm this weekend. Authorities identified 10 of the 17 people confirmed dead in Sonoma County. Nearly 2,900 homes in Santa Rosa have been destroyed.|

Firefighters gained ground Thursday against the epic fires raging in Sonoma and Napa counties, benefiting in part from a break in the wind and the marshaling of emergency resources streaming in from across the country and beyond.

But a number of blazes continued to burn out of control, threatening the towns of Calistoga, Geyserville, Sonoma and southern Lake County in what is expected to be among the worst - and is now the deadliest - wildfire disaster in state history.

Forecasts of isolated gusts Friday night of up to 60 mph stoked fears of another firestorm this weekend - a replay of the nightmare late Sunday that propelled flames from Napa County into Santa Rosa - 10 miles in six hours - killing at least 17 people in Sonoma County and destroying 2,840 homes in the city alone.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey called it a “serious blow” to the city's sense of safety and normalcy. In addition to homes, he said the city lost more than 400,000 square feet of commercial space as dozens of businesses burned to the ground.

“We have all suffered trauma here and we're going to be a long time in recovering from this incident,” Coursey said at a Thursday news conference.

Fires across a large swath of Northern California this week have burned more than 180,000 acres and claimed 31 lives. Their causes remain under investigation.

A total damage estimate has not been released but Congress added $1 billion to a $19 billion aid package destined for national hurricane and fire relief. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said the extra money was in direct response to “the devastation of these fires.”

Thousands of people across the North Bay remained under mandatory evacuation orders as five fires raged, consuming a combined 68,726 acres.

By Thursday night, the largest blaze in Sonoma County, the Tubbs fire, had burned more than 34,700 acres and was spreading north and east of Calistoga through rugged terrain into Lake County south of Middletown. Containment was at 10 percent.

It raced up Mount St. Helena on Thursday and jumped Highway 29 near Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Calistoga, home to more than 5,000 people, remained under mandatory evacuation for a second day. So far, no structures have burned within city limits.

“Right now, the object is to kick the crap out of the fire and keep the people safe,” Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said.

Region braces

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for high winds and low humidity starting Friday night and continuing to Saturday night.

Forecaster Rick Canepa said northeast breezes would be comparable to Sunday night's gusts.

“Complicating this is that the strongest winds will arrive at night,” Canepa said. “Because of critical fire conditions any wind is not good.”

Unhealthy air alerts were in effect and schools remained closed. Many, including Santa Rosa Junior College, will remain shuttered through at least Tuesday.

As the region braced for what was to come, Sonoma County authorities mounted a large-scale, targeted search Thursday for victims, identifying 10, most of whom were in their 70s and 80s.

At least 30 detectives and 10 search and rescue volunteers, aided by three cadaver dogs on loan from the Alameda County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue Team, joined the hunt for remains in the homes of residents believed likely to have perished, officials said.

The somber quest focused on people reported missing by loved ones for whom authorities had exhausted all other avenues in the effort to account for them, Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Crum said.

Most of those found were in their homes, though one was found next to a vehicle, Sheriff Rob Giordano told reporters.

Some were identified using dental records, while at least two were identified through serial numbers on medical devices such as hip and knee replacement joints, Giordano said. Another victim was identified through distinct tattoos.

Some victims may be so badly burned that “we may never get truly confirmative identities,” he said.

At least 400 missing-person reports are under investigation, the sheriff said, referring to an official list that has fluctuated since Monday, at one time numbering up to 1,000.

“As the area cools and is safer to go in, we'll start doing more, broader searches,” he said.

Among the losses revealed Thursday was the destruction of the Santa Rosa hillside home of late Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. It was unclear what if any artifacts were destroyed.

His widow, Jean Schulz, who evacuated the Upper Ridge Road house before flames could reach it, said she has yet to return to see what remains.

“It's heartbreaking to lose the place where I lived with Sparky,” said Schulz, part owner of Sonoma Media Investments, the parent company of The Press Democrat.

“But you have to look at the bright side: The wonderful thing is the museum is still there. Sparky's spirit is still embodied in the museum.”

Winds favorable

Four other fires - the Adobe, Nuns, Pocket and Presley - together burned about 35,000 acres in Sonoma County. The massive Atlas fire in Napa and Solano counties spread to nearly 44,000 acres with 3 percent containment.

Some of the day's most active burning occurred in the Sonoma Valley to the north, northeast and south of Sonoma where fingers of fire made short, strong pushes against firefighting efforts. Portions of the historic city remained under evacuation orders Thursday.

“We've had fire in multiple spots; up in the Trinity Cavedale road area it got very active this afternoon as well as the southern portion of 7th Street East, Wood Valley Road as well,” said Spencer Andreis, battalion chief for Sonoma Valley.

Andreis didn't believe any homes were lost Thursday and said firefighters kept the flames in check.

“We've had a good day. The winds have been favorable all day for us.”

“Hopefully we don't have a big wind event in the near future. Things are looking promising at this point,” Andreis said.

He said air support was “huge.”

“They're the big safety net, ‘eyes in the sky' we call it. They're looking out for you and able to pinpoint those drops on problem areas,” he said.

National Guard watching

Meanwhile, the Pocket fire near Geyserville grew to 8,430 acres while the Redwood Valley fire north of Ukiah was at 32,100 acres and 5 percent contained.

One of eight reported deaths in Mendocino County was a 14-year-old boy who died as he and his family tried to outrun the blaze Monday. His body was found in the driveway.

At least 4,000 people hunkered down in 24 Sonoma County shelters, while others filled hotels or streamed out of the area in a mass exodus down Highway 101.

About 1,000 National Guard troops helped hundreds of police officers watch over deserted neighborhoods, turning away residents attempting to learn whether their homes were destroyed.

“There are still fires everywhere,” Giordano said. “As our fire partners have said, this is not over.”

Pacific Gas & Electric said 44,000 customers remained without electricity in Sonoma County. An additional 5,000 in Napa County are without service, said Mayra Tostado, a spokeswoman for PG&E.

Tostado said PG&E has deployed 1,500 workers across its service area aided by utility crews in Southern California, Nevada, Washington and New Mexico. She said crews are currently assessing service areas where they are able to gain access into neighborhoods impacted by the fire.

‘Feeling neurotic'

In Sonoma, most businesses appeared closed around lunchtime, except Basque Boulangerie Café on 1st Street East, which was bustling with activity.

Sitting outside the café were local residents Audrey Chapman and Mary Johnson. Chapman was evacuated from her Sonoma home Wednesday, after which she went to her friend, Johnson's, house.

Even though she and her husband had only packed enough for one day - and Chapman said she was “feeling really neurotic” at first - she had resigned herself to the reality that the fires were far from over.

“I really feel like it's going to go on for a very long time,” Chapman said. “It is what it is. We've been through a couple of traumas before in our lives. It's like, ‘OK, one more thing.'?”

Her friend, Johnson, was a bit more unnerved.

“It feels endless,” Johnson said. “And we haven't even seen the destruction. We don't know what we're going to see when we leave this valley.”

Staff Writers J.D. Morris, Phil Barber, Mary Callahan, Nick Rahaim contributed reporting.

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