California wildfires: Record death toll climbs to 35

More than 200 people still missing after the most lethal wildfire in US history

 

Thousands more Californians evacuated their homes on Saturday as fierce wildfires spread due to constantly shifting winds, and officials expected the official death toll of 35 to rise with hundreds of people still missing.

Sixteen major wildfires, some encompassing several smaller merged blazes, have consumed nearly 86,000 hectares (214,000 acres) over seven days, an area larger than New York City.

The 35 confirmed fatalities, including 19 in Sonoma County, make this the deadliest fire event in California’s history. Some 100,000 people have been forced from their homes, including another 3,000 evacuated on Saturday from the city of Santa Rosa, about 80km (50 miles) north of San Francisco, and another 250 from nearby Sonoma city.

“It’s an unwieldy beast right now,” fire information officer Dennis Rein said at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, the main staging area for the so-called Nuns Fire in Sonoma County, a wine-producing region.

More than 10,000 firefighters are battling the fires, which have destroyed 5,700 buildings. At least a dozen Napa Valley wineries were damaged or destroyed, throwing California’s wine industry and related tourism into disarray.

From the air, some 70 helicopters and large aircraft including a 747, two DC-10s and about a dozen air tankers doused flames up and down the state with fire retardant, officials said.

On the ground, prison inmates were helping firefighters – sometimes digging lines to help contain fires, other times preparing meals at command centres, always with a guard watching over them.

In an area largely dependent on immigrant farm labour, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they would temporarily suspend routine operations during the emergency, “except in the event of a serious criminal presenting a public safety threat,” spokesman James Schwab said in a statement.

Ground crews gained on the wildfires on Friday but drier weather and fast-changing winds complicated efforts on Saturday, sparking a new large wildfire in Lake County, officials said.

The Nuns Fire, which had killed at least one person, was only 10 per cent contained with winds threatening more residential areas, Cal Fire spokesman Antonio Negrete said.

But the more deadly Tubbs Fire, which killed at least 17 people in Sonoma County, was 44 per cent contained, which officials considered a victory.

“It’s cautious optimism but it’s optimism,” Mr Negrete said of the Tubbs Fire.

Cal Fire had estimated the fires would be contained by October 20th but may need to revise that date because of the winds that kicked up, Mr Rein said.

“It’ll set us back a planning cycle. Everything is very dynamic,” Mr Rein said.

Camping

Melissa Kenworthy, who was getting breakfast on Saturday at a Santa Rosa Red Cross centre, said she fled her home in nearby Geyserville when the fires began on Sunday and has been camping in a recreational vehicle park.

As far as she knew, her house was still standing but Geyserville was threatened by the Pocket Fire, which was only 5 per cent contained, and she said she would not go home “until the rains come”.

Whole neighbourhoods of Santa Rosa have been reduced to landscapes of grey ash, smoldering debris and burned-out vehicles.

Some victims were asleep when flames engulfed their homes, and many survivors had only minutes to flee.

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones on Saturday asked insurers to expedite claims for wildfire damage claims in order to help fire victims more quickly. Several insurers immediately agreed, his office said in a statement.

“Victims of these devastating wildfires need all the help we can provide,” Mr Jones said.

California governor Jerry Brown said on Saturday that the White House had approved direct aid to people in Butte, Lake, Mendocino and Yuba counties who have suffered fire losses, expanding on Friday’s action covering Napa and Sonoma counties.

The fires’ death toll surpassed the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

With 235 people still missing on Saturday in Sonoma County alone, and rubble from thousands of incinerated dwellings yet to be searched, authorities have said the number of fatalities from the North Bay fires would likely climb.

The picturesque town of Calistoga, at the northern end of Napa Valley, faced one of the biggest remaining hazards. Its 5,000-plus residents were ordered from their homes on Wednesday night as a fierce blaze dubbed the Tubbs Fire crept to within 3km of city limits.

The year’s wildfire season is one of the worst in US history, with nearly 3.5 million hectares burned, just behind 2012, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Reuters