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