Teams report first progress against wine country wildfires


Associated Press

SANTA ROSA, Calif.

A fifth day of desperate firefighting in California wine country brought a glimmer of hope Friday as crews battling the flames reported their first progress toward containing the massive blazes, and hundreds more firefighters poured in to join the effort.

Seventeen large fires were still burning across Northern California, with more than 9,000 firefighters attacking the flames.

“The emergency is not over, and we continue to work at it, but we are seeing some great progress,” said the state’s emergency operations director, Mark Ghilarducci.

Over the past 24 hours, crews arrived from Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, North and South Carolina, Oregon and Arizona. Other teams came from as far away as Canada and Australia.

The scale of the disaster also became clearer as authorities said the fires had chased an estimated 90,000 people from their homes and destroyed at least 5,700 homes and businesses. The death toll rose to 36, making this the deadliest and most destructive series of wildfires in California history.

Individual fires including a 1991 blaze in the hills around Oakland killed more people than any one of the current blazes, but no collection of simultaneous fires in California ever led to so many deaths, authorities said.

Dozens of search-and-rescue personnel at a mobile home park in Santa Rosa carried out the grim task Friday of searching for remains. Fire tore through Santa Rosa early Monday, leaving only a brief window for residents to flee, and decimated the park, which was known as Journey’s End and was home to hundreds of people.

To help in the search, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office near San Francisco sent specialized equipment, including drones with three-dimensional cameras and five dogs trained to sniff out human remains.

The influx of outside help offered critical relief to firefighters who have been working with little rest since the blazes started.

Two of the largest fires in Napa and Sonoma counties were at least 25 percent contained by Friday, which marked “significant progress,” said Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. But he cautioned that crews would face more gusty winds, low humidity and higher temperatures. Those conditions were expected persist into the weekend.

As the fires raged, many people were still searching for lost loved ones and picking through the ashes of their homes, both mentally and physically exhausted by the trauma of the past week.

“It wears you out,” said winemaker Kristin Belair, who was driving back from Lake Tahoe to her as-yet-undamaged home in Napa. “Anybody who’s been in a natural disaster can tell you that it goes on and on. I think you just kind of do hour by hour almost.”

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