Death toll from Northern California fires jumps to at least 34; 5700 structures destroyed – Los Angeles Times
The grim toll from the Northern California wildfires continued to rise Friday as officials said an estimated 5,700 structures were destroyed and that at least 34 people died.
Firefighters continued to gain control of some fires scorching wine country, thanks in part to continued calm winds in some parts of the region. Officials expect the death toll to rise as search efforts continue in neighborhoods from Santa Rosa to the hills of Napa County.
In Mendocino County, where at least nine people have died, officials identified three victims from the Redwood Valley: Kai Logan Shepherd, 14; Roy Howard Bowman, 87; and his wife, Irma Elsie Bowman, 88.
The teenager was found near his family’s house on the 11300 block of West Road. Authorities believe he was trying to escape the fire when he was overtaken by flames, according to a Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department statement.
The Bowmans were found in their home on the 4000 block of Fisher Lake Drive. “The residence was completely destroyed by the fire,” according to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department statement.
The Redwood Valley fire in Mendocino County has burned 34,000 acres and was 10% contained as of Friday. Between that fire and the 2,500-acre Sulphur fire, about 8,000 people have been evacuated, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“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.
The town of Ukiah is quickly becoming a place of refuge for those displaced by the deadly Mendocino County fires.
Employees at Ukiah Natural Foods Co-op make ham and turkey sandwiches every day for the volunteer firefighters. Officials are running an evacuation center at the high school, while the fairgrounds are home to a growing number of tents and RVs.
Magnus Kuhne Petersson, 34, his wife and their 10-month-old baby fled their home in Redwood Valley and are staying at a friend’s place in Ukiah.
At Mendo Baby, a local store, the owner wouldn’t accept money for the baby clothes, Petersson said.
The owner’s own house burned down, but she still insisted on giving away the items for free, he said.
“We’re very fortunate,” Kuhne Petersson said. “The community is very strong and supportive.”
The death toll from the Tubbs wildfire in Sonoma County rose to 18 Friday afternoon and will likely continue to rise as responders pursue more missing-person reports, officials said at a news conference Friday afternoon.
The Tubbs fire has consumed at least 2,834 homes and 400,000 square feet of commercial space in the city of Santa Rosa alone, and has burned 34,770 acres overall as of Friday morning. The fire was 25% contained, a jump from the 10% containment gained Thursday night.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey estimated the flames had caused $1.2 billion in damage and destroyed 5% of the city’s housing stock.
Firefighters scrambled Friday to dig fire lines and bulldoze debris to gain an advantage over the blazes before winds pick up later in the day. Meteorologists have predicted overnight gusts of up to 40 miles per hour on ridges above 2,000 feet where the Pocket and Tubbs fires are burning, officials said.
That could cause problems for firefighters trying to restrain the fires from racing through canyons in the area.
“We’re making a lot better progress today,” said Steve Crawford, the Cal Fire operations section chief for the Tubbs and other nearby fires. “We told the guys, ‘Do hard work today and by this evening when this wind comes up, we’ll be ahead of the curve.’ ”
After the flames from the Tubbs fire died down in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano drove through the ruins of the city’s Larkfield-Wikiup neighborhood.
Twisted beams, layers of ash, and garage doors crumpled like old newspapers littered spaces once occupied by tidy homes. Cars were reduced to charred frames, their wheel rims melted into rivulets of gleaming aluminum that pooled in the gutters.
“I don’t think anyone can comprehend the amount of damage,” Giordano told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s devastating. I’ve only driven maybe 5% of the fire area. … I don’t even think I understand what the damage toll is going to be, and I have a better handle on it than most.”
Rescuers are still sifting through the flattened neighborhoods, looking for victims. Then hazardous-material specialists will need to remove toxic substances from the areas, Giordano said.
Officials said they were working to return lost power to homes and reopen the Kaiser hospital that was evacuated when flames burned nearby earlier in the week.
Some Santa Rosa residents may be allowed to return home Saturday or Sunday, officials said Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile, the city’s residents are grasping for a sense of normality.
At a synagogue in the southeast part of the city, about 30 families in the congregation of 460 lost their homes. A former president of the synagogue died, the rabbi said.
At Santa Rosa High School, where the newspaper and yearbook clubs are using social media and word of mouth to keep a tally, students know of at least 40 classmates so far whose homes burned down.
At a downtown motel where evacuees had taken refuge, David Joslyn, a longtime resident of Mark West Springs Road, asked a young woman wearing sweat pants and carrying a cat, “How’re you doing?”
“I’m OK,” she said. “My house burned down, so it’s kind of sad.”
“Mine, too,” Joslyn said.
Joslyn, a special education teacher, isn’t sure if he and his wife will rebuild on the land, or when.
For now, he’s focused on the immediate future. On Thursday he went shopping for new clothes and a couple of pairs of shoes.
He also found an apartment to rent, a three-bedroom unit in a complex with dozens of others like it. It’s in the middle of town, with no views of trees.
Even as thousands of families remain evacuated, Santa Rosa is beginning to return to the rhythms of daily life. Street lights have come back on. Restaurants have reopened. Rush hour traffic is picking back up.
“One of the things that’s almost working against us is that the city is coming back to life everywhere,” Giordano said, emphasizing that the community is not out of the woods yet. “People think it’s over. It’s not over. These fires are still blazing.”
Winds over the weekend could stoke the fires and stall the progress firefighters have made, officials said.