Death toll rises to 31 as fire crews make progress in California firestorm – Los Angeles Times
Firefighters continued to gain control of some fires scorching Northern California on Thursday night, thanks in part to continued calm winds in some parts of the region. Altogether, the fires have burned more than 180,000 acres and caused at least 31 deaths. Officials expect the death toll to rise as search efforts continue.
Officials began to gain a toehold Thursday night and early Friday against fires raging in Sonoma County, as humidity levels rose and winds died down.
The Tubbs fire, which has been responsible for 17 deaths in Sonoma County and destroyed at least 2,834 homes and 400,000 square feet of commercial space in the city of Santa Rosa alone, had burned 34,770 acres as of Friday morning and was 25% contained, a jump from the 10% containment gained Thursday night.
The nearly 10,000-acre Pocket fire reached 5% containment, officials said.
“We had the right conditions for weather,” said Richard Cordova, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “But we’re really concerned about the winds that are going to come up this evening and overnight.”
Firefighters will face calm winds from the north on Friday morning, which are expected to shift to the northeast and strengthen later Friday. That could cause problems for firefighters trying to hold the fires from racing through canyons in the area.
Ridges above 2,000 feet on the Pocket and Tubbs fires could see gusts of 30 to 40 mph overnight, fire officials told hundreds of firefighters Friday morning at a briefing at the Sonoma County fairgrounds.
The fires are primarily burning in woodland areas thick with brush, which grew explosively over the last year after a winter of heavy rain. The grasses are at their driest point, officials said, making them extremely susceptible to fires.
There were no new mandatory evacuations related to the Tubbs fire, but the town of Calistoga, as well as large swaths of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, remained under evacuation orders, as the fire spread north and east Thursday.
Hotels and shelters are packed with families wondering when they can get back home — or if they even have a home to return to. As burn areas cool and recovery teams sift through the ashes for human remains, neighbors and family members outside the region are starting to find out who perished in the fire. On Thursday night, Sonoma County released the names of 10 people who had died because of the Tubbs fire — many of them in their 70s.
Of renewed concern is the Nuns fire in Sonoma County, which was active overnight and merged with the Adobe and Norrbom fires, growing to 44,381 acres and burning at 5% containment, according to Cal Fire.
The fire has grown, Cordova said, but some of the growth can be attributed to more firefighters on the ground and in the air, getting better information on the fire.
“Before, it was kind of a guess on the map and the lines,” Cordova said. “Now we have guys out there, and our aircraft are mapping it. These fires are going to grow. That doesn’t necessarily mean we had major fire activity.”
Families won’t be able to get back to their homes for a while, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Jones said. Crews have to remove debris and fix downed power lines, as well as trees that have been burnt out and may pose a risk of collapsing. In Sonoma County alone, about 16,000 homes are still without power.
The massive Atlas fire, threatening Napa and Solano counties, grew to 48,228 acres overnight and was 27% contained as of Friday morning, according to Cal Fire.
Firefighters managed to stretch control lines along the western edge of the Atlas fire facing Napa, according to Cal Fire incident planning documents. They also noted that the fire’s movement west had stopped, and it was mostly now moving north toward Lake Berryessa.
Firefighters battling blazes to the south — including the Atlas fire — were told to expect a mild, warm day Friday, but strong winds returning Friday evening through Saturday. Gusts of up to 40 mph along ridges were again forecast.
Residents were allowed back into areas of Napa County affected by the fire, including parts of the Silverado Country Club and Monticello Park, according to Cal Fire. Evacuation orders in neighboring Solano County still remain in effect.
Residents returning home were cautioned to be mindful of downed power lines and other hazards.
The Redwood fire in Mendocino County has burned 34,000 acres and was 10% contained as of Thursday night.
“Steep inaccessible terrain coupled with critical fuel moistures, and northwest winds will provide challenges for crews working on the fire,” a Cal Fire incident report read Thursday night.
Yuba County was hit with the 10,171-acre Cascade fire, 45% contained as of Thursday night. The fire claimed at least four lives, and the county has released a list of damaged homes.
Among the 10 people identified by Sonoma and Napa county officials, the youngest victim was 57, the oldest 100.
“The bulk of them are in their 70s and 80s, so there is that commonality,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano told reporters at a news briefing.
A majority were found inside their homes, unable to escape as the fire bore down. At least one was in a wheelchair. Another was lying next to a vehicle. The trend highlights a risk for elderly people when a natural disaster strikes: Health problems may limit mobility. They may no longer drive, and often live in areas with unreliable cellphone service.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Alene Tchemedyian contributed to this report.