Deadly Wildfires in Northern California Continue to Cause Damage
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Authorities say some of the most destructive wildfires in California’s history have killed at least 35 people. Eighteen people have died in Sonoma County, nine in Mendocino County, four in Napa County and four in Yuba County.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said about 5,700 homes and buildings have been destroyed by wildfires burning in Northern California.
The Sonoma County Coroner’s Office has positively identified the following decedents and their next of kin have been advised:
• Carol Collins-Swasey, 76, from Santa Rosa
• Lynne Anderson Powell, 72, from Santa Rosa
• Arthur Tasman Grant, 95, from Santa Rosa
• Suiko Grant, 75, from Santa Rosa
• Donna Mae Halbur, 80, from Larkfield (Santa Rosa)
• Leroy Peter Halbur, 80, from Larkfield (Santa Rosa)
• Valerie Lynn Evans, 75, from Santa Rosa
• Carmen Caldentey Berriz, 75, from Apple Valley
• Michael John Dornbach, 57, from Calistoga
• Veronica Elizabeth McCombs, 67, from Santa Rosa
They join Charles, 100, and Sara Rippey, 98, of Napa who were identified earlier this week.
Approximately 90,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, according to Cal Fire.
Firefighters gained some ground on the blazes but face another tough day with low humidity and high winds expected to return Friday night through Saturday night, leading to a red flag warning in the North and East Bay.
But Cal Fire's Daniel Berlant says the agency wants to be as aggressive as possible on the fires Friday.
"Today we have a little bit of a window of opportunity as the winds are going to be relatively light throughout much of the day," Berlant said. "We're going to bring in some fresh crews and we're going to be doubling up on some of the containment lines on the southern portion of these fires because the north winds are expected to pick back up late tonight."
National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Rowe says winds will start to pick up late in the day.
"Right now we are most concerned about the North Bay mountains as well as the East Bay hills for the threat of strong and gusty off-shore winds and low relative humidity values," Rowe said.
In those areas, wind gusts out of the north and north east are expected to hit 20 to 30 mph and could reach 40 to 50 miles an hour.
Meteorologists say there's a chance the area could see isolated gusts reaching 60 mph at the highest ridges and peaks.
High winds have created power outages in the North Bay, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said 34,000 customers are without electricity -- most of them are in Sonoma and Napa counties.
The Atlas Fire burning in Napa and Solano counties has scorched 48,228 acres and is 27 percent contained.
The Tubbs Fire near Calistoga and Santa Rosa has burned 34,770 acres and is 25 contained.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said in a press conference Thursday afternoon that 2,834 homes had been destroyed by fires in the city alone.
"We've lost almost 5 percent of the housing stock in Santa Rosa," Coursey said during a Friday afternoon press conference. We're looking at $1.2 billion in damage in Santa Rosa alone. It's a huge hill we've got to climb."
Cal Fire incident commander Bret Gouvea said Friday that efforts are underway to repopulate certain areas that have been evacuated within the next day or two.
More than 9,000 firefighters are battling 17 large fires that have burned more than 221,000 acres (345 square miles), according to Cal Fire. The agency said 840 engines, 116 dozers and 211 hand crews have been deployed against the blazes. Six air tankers and 12 helicopters are also fighting against the fires.
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued Wednesday for the entire city of Calistoga, and residents were told to leave immediately and shelter at American Canyon High School, 30 miles to the south between Napa and Vallejo. About 2,500 residents have evacuated their homes in Solano County because of the spreading Atlas Fire, which began in neighboring Napa County. The fire has destroyed two homes and 11 other structures and is still threatening 400 other homes in the county, according to Solano County Sheriff Tom Ferrera.
Geyserville and surrounding communities in Sonoma County were also put under evacuation Thursday.
Most schools in Napa and Sonoma counties are closed through the end of the week, in addition to schools in Solano, Marin and Contra Costa counties, which have closed due to poor air quality from smoke from the fires.
Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said Wednesday that Oregon, Nevada, Arizona and Washington are sending firefighters and the U.S. Forest Service is sending fire engines, bulldozers and hand crews. Some 14,000 members of the California National Guard are on notice and could join members already assisting in firefighting efforts.
"We have had big fires in the past. This is one of the biggest, most serious, and it's not over," Gov. Jerry Brown said at a news conference on Wednesday.
The blazes have burned approximately 221,000 acres, according to Cal Fire. Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said Friday that 256 people are still reported missing. People can call 707-565-3856 to report missing persons.
Multiple fires broke out Sunday night as strong winds buffeted the area. Emergency lines were inundated with callers reporting smoke in the area.
Cal Fire is investigating whether falling power lines and exploding electrical transformers may have caused some of the wildfires that started in the North Bay Sunday night. The Bay Area News Group reported Wednesday that Sonoma County dispatchers sent fire crews out to at least 10 locations over a 90-minute period, starting around 9:20 p.m. on Sunday, to respond to calls about electrical problems.
A Cal Fire spokeswoman stresses that the agency is investigating a number of potential causes. A Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokesman says the historic wind event that swept through the utility’s service area late Sunday night and early Monday packed hurricane strength winds. PG&E blames those winds, the drought and the winter storms for causing trees, branches and debris to impact the company’s electrical lines in the North Bay.
Meanwhile, state regulators ordered PG&E to preserve any evidence they discover related to the wildfires on Thursday.
A spokeswoman for the agency says that they will formally investigate PG&E if Cal Fire finds that the utilities’ power lines caused the fires. In the meantime agency staff are examining PG&E’s activities in the areas on fire, focusing on maintenance.
Under California law, utility companies are required to provide clearance between trees and their power lines.
Last year the state fined PG&E $90 million after determining that the company’s power lines caused a catastrophic Butte Fire that killed two people in 2015.
It may take awhile for Cal Fire to determine the fires' cause though.
“The devastation is enormous,” Giordano said. “We can’t even get into most of the areas.”
Communications in the region have been difficult since the fires broke out on Sunday night, with many losing their power and struggling to find reliable cell coverage. Giordano said Wednesday morning that the National Guard has brought in a satellite cell system to help people connect with loved ones.
Of the 77 cell towers knocked out in the fires, all but eight have been restored, according to the California Office of Emergency Services
AT&T has deployed mobile cell sites to Santa Rosa, Willits and the Napa Town & County Fairgrounds to connect customers and emergency responders who have been without wireless service and connectivity since early Monday. Comcast has expanded use of its Wi-Fi hotspots to the public for free.
The lack of connectivity has made it difficult for people in the area to connect with loved ones. Officials are asking people to register themselves at safeandwell.org to alert friends and family of their status.
It has also been a challenge for fire and government officials to connect with each other and to get information out to the public. Officials said that radio has been the most reliable way for them to pass along information.
President Trump granted the state a presidential disaster declaration Wednesday. The declaration makes federal money available to the state, local governments and some nonprofits for emergency work in seven counties in California -- Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte, Lake, Nevada and Yuba. Declarations for other counties may be made in the future, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Brown has requested assistance for individuals but the president has not approved that, FEMA Region IX spokesman Frank Mansell said. Money to reduce or prevent damage from future disasters will also be available as a result of the disaster declaration.
Smoke from wildfires is also causing airline flights to be delayed or canceled in Northern California. More than 80 flights were canceled by late Thursday morning at San Francisco International Airport, said airport spokesman Doug Yakel.
He says delays on other flights average 30 to 45 minutes. The Federal Aviation Administration says some arriving flights are delayed more than three hours.