California fires death toll rises to 31; over 1,000 missing, thousands homeless


SANTA ROSA – The wildfires in Northern California have killed 31 people, making it the deadliest series of blazes in the state’s history.

The fires, which began on Sunday, have swept through California’s wine country, burning over 190,000 acres (76,000 hectares) of land. At least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed and an estimated 25,000 people forced to flee.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) announced Thursday that the fires have claimed 31 lives, while Sheriff Rob Giordano of hard-hit Sonoma County said his department has received around 1,100 reports of missing persons.

“We’re moving into a recovery phase,” he said. “We have cadaver dogs up here that can basically scent bodies and help us find people.”

The sheriff said that of the 17 people confirmed dead in Sonoma County, 10 have now been identified.

“The youngest person on this list is 57 years old. The bulk of them are in their 70s and 80s,” he said.

Gusty winds on Thursday were hampering the efforts of the 8,000 firefighters battling 20 blazes, and weather conditions were not forecast to improve.

“What this means is that our fires will continue to burn erratically,” California fire chief Ken Pimlott told a news conference. “They have the potential to shift in any direction at any time.

“We are a long way from being done with this catastrophe,” he said.

On Thursday, Sonoma and Napa counties endured a fourth day of choking smoke while many residents fled to shelters or camped out on beaches to await word on their homes and loved ones.

Smoke from wildfires north of San Francisco is creating the worst air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area on record, forcing schools to close on Friday.

Calistoga, known for wine tastings and hot springs, had dozens of firefighters staged at street corners. Ash rained down from the sky and a thick haze covered the ground. Mayor Chris Canning warned that the fires were drawing closer and all of the city’s 5,000 residents needed to heed an evacuation order.

President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in California, freeing up federal funding and resources to help fight the fires, and Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in eight counties.

Forest fires are common in the western United States during the summer but this year’s blazes in California are the deadliest series of fires to hit the state.

The Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles County in 1933 killed at least 29 people, and 25 people died in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.