Wine Country Town Evacuated as Wildfire Death Toll Climbs

A firefighter monitors a flare up on a the head of a wildfire, off of High Road above the Sonoma Valley on Oct. 11, 2017, in Sonoma, Calif. A wind shift caused flames to move quickly up hill and threaten homes in the area. Three days after the fires began, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes that had turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP)

NAPA, Calif. (CN) – “I had trouble sleeping last night, that’s for sure,” said Rosalie McArthur on Thursday morning at a hotel in Napa. McArthur lives in nearby Calistoga, a city of 5,000 that is now a smoky ghost town after its evacuation due to the Tubbs Fire.

But some of the residents of the bucolic little town stayed behind, drawing the ire of local officials.

“You are not welcome in Calistoga,” said Mayor Chris Canning. “You are a distraction for first responders and you will not be given life-saving assistance.”

Meanwhile, the city of Napa went to sleep on tenterhooks Wednesday night, as much of the east side of the city remained under evacuation advisory due to the approach of the Atlas Fire, which has grown to 32,000 acres with zero containment.

They awoke to good news, however.

“The wind event that was predicted overnight didn’t materialize,” said Barry Bierman of Cal Fire.

But it was only a silver lining in an otherwise cloudy picture for the Wine Country.

The death toll has risen to 26, with hundreds still missing. In the early days of the fire, with cell service and power was knocked down, many officials believed most of the missing persons would be located once services were restored.

But on Thursday morning, with cell service largely restored to Napa and areas of Santa Rosa, officials fretted that the death toll could rise sharply.

“We are moving into the recovery phase,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Ron Giordano. “Many of these places are active fire zones; the area has to be safe, and it’s a slow process right now.”

Giordano’s office had 900 missing-persons reports, he said Thursday, and 437 have been found. The sheriff’s office is attempting to weed out duplicates, so the 463 remaining missing reports is not a good indication of possible fatalities. However, officers have begun identifying missing persons and are doing targeted searches of missing persons’ homes.

“This is the reality,” Giordano said. “Identification is going to be hard. In some cases, we have recovered bodies intact. In some cases, it’s just ash and bones.”

Giordano was only talking about fatalities in Sonoma County, although the area has borne the brunt of the fires. Fatalities have also been reported in Napa, Mendocino, Yuba and Solano counties.

Fires burning in the Wine Country have laid waste to about 170,000 acres in the region, and many of the large fires, including Atlas and Tubbs, are burning uncontrolled.

Napa is filled to the brim with evacuees from Calistoga and Santa Rosa, many of whom do not know the ultimate fate of their homes, possessions and in some cases their pets.

“When will we be allowed to get back into our homes,” one woman asked frantically at a public informational meeting at Napa City Hall on Wednesday night.

Napa Police Chief Steve Potter didn’t sugarcoat it.

“I would be surprised if this fire is contained in three weeks,” he said. “We are in it for the long haul.”

The Tubbs Fire and the Atlas Fire continue to be a priority for Cal Fire, Bierman told residents and the press on Thursday morning, as the Tubbs is slowly nearing Calistoga. The Atlas Fire is heading towards Solano County and threatening houses and people that live there.

But optimism is beginning to creep into the reports of fire officials. Neither fire grew as much overnight as they have been, and the high winds that were predicted haven’t materialized. On Thursday afternoon, Cal Fire said the Tubbs Fire was 10 percent contained.

Also, resources from around the state and region have begun to pour in, with additional firefighters and equipment. Fire engines from Laguna Beach in Southern California and Salem, Oregon, were seen racing through downtown Napa on Thursday.

Weather forecasts call for calming wind Friday and over the weekend, with humidity creeping up as well. Nevertheless, much of Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties remain under red flag warnings, meaning conditions are ripe for the rapid spread of fire.

With firefighters’ efforts to save property and people, containment of the fires has been deprioritized. And Cal Fire officials remain unwilling to speculate on the causes of the fire, although power outages, downed power lines and exploding transformers were reported in the area where the Tubbs Fire started.

Now well into the first week of the firestorm, officials acknowledge the Wine Country fires are some of the worst the state has seen.

“We’ve had big fires in the past, but this is one of the biggest,” California Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday afternoon.

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