SANTA ROSA, Calif. – The winds that have fanned northern California’s wine-country wildfires were calmer Thursday, giving firefighters a badly needed break from the “red flag” conditions that have made this menacing arc of flames so deadly and destructive.
The National Weather Service said the calmer winds are expected to last through Friday, giving fire crews a fighting chance against the blazes that have mostly raged uncontrolled.
The 21 fires currently burning across the northern part of the state have killed at least 24 people, destroyed more than 3,500 buildings and torched more than 191,000 acres – a collective area nearly the size of New York City.
And they continue to menace populated areas: One evacuation order Wednesday covered the entire city of Calistoga in Napa County. In neighboring Sonoma County, where the fires have done the most damage, Geyserville residents were urged to leave Wednesday evening; two hours later, another evacuation order was issued in the Sonoma Valley.
“These fires are a long way from being contained,” said Barry Dugan, a Sonoma County spokesman.
Nine fires are now burning in Sonoma and Napa counties, the heart of California’s wine-growing industry. One of the biggest and by far the deadliest, the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma, grew about 6,000 acres overnight before conditions began to improve.
More than 450 people are still reported missing in Sonoma County, where the sheriff expects to confirm more fatalities as officers and cadaver dogs gain access to the “hot zones” that were immolated in the firestorm.
Fourteen people have been found dead so far in the county, and Sheriff Robert Giordano said Thursday it would be “unrealistic” to think that number won’t rise.
Soon, these wildfires will collectively become the deadliest in California’s modern history, surpassing the Oakland Hills Fire that killed 25 in 1991.
“We’ve found bones that were almost completely intact,” Giordano said at a morning news briefing. “We’ve found bodies that are nothing more than ashes and bones.”
He added: “We will do everything in our power to locate all the missing people. I promise you we will handle the remains with care and get them to their loved ones.”
As thousands of firefighters work to contain the blazes, officials have started looking at what’s ahead: Cleaning up the charred remains of thousands of structures, some of which could contain potentially hazardous materials.
“You can imagine what it’s going to take,” said Dugan, the Sonoma County spokesman. “You just take one area in Santa Rosa, the Coffey Park area. There’s dozens if not hundreds of [destroyed] homes. That’s a lot of cleanup and a lot of debris. Once the fire is under control, there’ll still a lot of work to do.”
He added: “This is going to be months and years of recovery for the county.”
Amid these grim bulletins, the huge utility company PG&E acknowledged that the extreme winds late Sunday and early Monday had knocked trees into power lines in conditions conducive to wildfires.
“The historic wind event that swept across PG&E’s service area late Sunday and early Monday packed hurricane-strength winds in excess of 75 mph in some cases,” said Ari Vanrenen, a PG&E spokeswoman, in a statement released after the San Jose Mercury News first reported on a possible link between the wildfires and the power grid.
“These destructive winds, along with millions of trees weakened by years of drought and recent renewed vegetation growth from winter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay,” she said.
Mike Mohler, a Cal Fire battalion chief, said investigators are looking into a series of calls about infrastructure failure and downed power lines Sunday night in Sonoma County – and whether those may have caused some of the fires.
“Investigators are out there, trying to determine exactly if lines were down, how many and where they were,” Mohler said.
PG&E has said that hundreds of its employees have been working with Cal Fire and other first responders. “In some cases, we have proactively de-energized some power lines to support the response efforts,” the company said Thursday morning.
The utility company issued repeated warnings to its customers once heavy winds started battering the region Sunday morning. “High winds expected. Be alert near fallen trees/branches. Report downed lines to 911,” PG&E tweeted several times.
Officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said they have yet to determine the cause of the fires, which Chief Ken Pimlott called “a serious, critical, catastrophic event.”
The conflagrations have led tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. About 4,400 are in shelters and will not be able to go home for many days, officials said.
In Sonoma County, 600 people were reported missing, though the sheriff’s office said Wednesday night that 315 have been located and are safe. Another 285 are still reported missing, but many may have lost cellphones or Internet access and may not have been able to reach friends or family.
Statewide, 8,000 firefighters are working to contain the fires, the worst of which are in Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties. In Sonoma County alone, more than a half-dozen separate wildfires have erupted, including one that started Wednesday.
The fires have put a strain on federal resources, too. Coming on the heels of catastrophic hurricanes, the California wildfires in total represent just one of 22 disasters that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is managing across the nation. Eighty-five percent of FEMA’s 9,900 full-time employees are working “in the field,” away from their assigned offices, agency spokesman Mike Cappannari said.