The toll from Northern California’s ranging wildfires continued to grow Tuesday evening as officials said the fires destroyed up to 2,000 structures and killed at least 17 people.
The devastating losses establish firestorms among the most destructive in California history. The estimated losses of homes, businesses and other buildings jumped from 1,500 to 2,000, and officials fear the death toll will also continue to rise.
Sonoma County alone has received about 200 reports of missing people since Sunday night, and sheriff’s officials have located 45 of those people, said county spokeswoman Maggie Fleming.
The majority of the fatalities are from Sonoma County, where huge swaths of the city of Santa Rosa were leveled by the Tubbs fire. Eleven people have died in Sonoma County as of 7 p.m. Tuesday, officials said. Two people have died in Napa County, three in Mendocino County and one in Yuba County, Cal Fire officials said.
As firefighters continued to battle one of the worst firestorms in California history, federal officials vowed to help.
Vice President Mike Pence said in a visit to California’s emergency management headquarters that President Trump has approved a “major disaster declaration” for California. When he spoke, 13 people had been confirmed dead.
“Let me first say our hearts and the hearts of every American go out to the families of the 13 who’ve lost their lives. It’s heartbreaking to think that many of the fallen represent our most vulnerable; in some cases senior citizens who simply were not able to escape the flames that overcame their homes,” he said. “They are in our prayers.”
As of 7 a.m. Tuesday, the two biggest blazes — the Tubbs fire and the Atlas Peak fire in Napa County — had burned 27,000 and 25,000 acres, respectively, said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. Both fires were uncontained, he said. Firefighters are hoping that winds will lessen enough Tuesday to allow crews to get a handle on the fires.
“Though our containment numbers haven’t gone up just yet, we’ve at least been able to hold these fires and keep them at their current acreage,” Berlant said. The Tubbs fire grew about 2,000 acres since Monday night.
Some of the smaller fires had some containment as of Monday night, he said: The 2,500-acre Sulphur fire in Lake County was 10% contained, and the 2,000-acre 37 fire in Sonoma County was 15% contained.
About 20,000 people evacuated their homes Sunday night and Monday, and there were additional evacuations in the Tubbs fire area and in Yuba County overnight, Berlant said.
Residents of some areas were allowed to return Tuesday night, including in the Forestville area.
Red flag warnings in effect throughout much of Northern California had expired as of Tuesday morning, Berlant said. Winds of up to 50 mph Sunday night helped spread the flames.
“Overnight, the wind that had fanned these fires had really decreased, and that gave us an opportunity to really take a stand against these fires,” Berlant said early Tuesday. “We are again today hoping to see very little wind compared to Sunday.”
But the cool and quiet of night did not stymie the progress of the Atlas fire, which stretched across the hills east of Napa and sparked a chain of more fires to the west.
“They continue to move. They were moving all night,” burning more structures in their wake, Cal Fire incident commander Kevin Lawson said Tuesday morning.
On Tuesday, the Atlas fire was moving down the east side of a ridge into Solano County and threatening residents of Green Valley. The Partrick fire southwest of Napa was pushing toward heavily populated areas, and emergency planners warned that the fire could grow.
A few miles north, the community of Glen Ellen continued to be threatened by the Nuns fire burning in the Mayacamas Mountains.
Fire behavior specialist Jon Heggie told crews heading out at dawn Tuesday to be prepared for the fires to turn north and east into dry brush “with 80% to 90% probability of ignition.”
As of late Tuesday, the 16 fires in Northern California had destroyed up to 2,000 homes, businesses and other structures, said Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox.
Several thousand firefighters from across the state are battling the blazes, and some strike teams from Southern California have been sent north, Berlant said. The California National Guard has deployed six additional helicopters to aid in firefighting efforts.
And evacuees will not be able to return to their homes for some time, he said.
“Many of these fires, it’s going to take several more days, even potentially more weeks, before we have full containment,” Berlant said.
Still, some tried to get back to their houses Tuesday.
It took Brady Harvell almost two hours to find what he was looking for in the rubble of his parents’ home on the northwest corner of Santa Rosa.
Using a small spade to move ashes aside, Harvell had been searching for the Army dog tags he gave his father in 2013 when he returned from deployment in Iraq. At 12:40 p.m. he reached down and pulled it out of a gray pile. Harvell held it up and shouted: “Got it! Oh, my God! Got it!”
Marveling over the discolored and misshapen treasure in the palm of his hand, he said: “I grew up here, all my memories are from this very spot. It’s where I played and learned right from wrong. But the fire destroyed every photograph my mother and father had of me. It took all our memories, except this one.”
Harvell reached into his pocket and pulled out a cellphone and dialed.
“Love you, Brady,” his father said at the other end of the line.
“Love you, Dad,” Harvell replied.
Lance Thomspon, 75, returned to his Hidden Valley neighborhood Tuesday to find streets filled with broken utility poles and huge tangles of smoldering power lines. Some streets were blocked by yellow police tape.
Once home to stately two-story brick homes fronting winding, narrow lanes gated by 100-foot pine trees, most of the neighborhood was reduced to ashes, twisted metal and broken water mains splashing onto heaps of blackened beams. The only things left standing were the skeletal trunks and limbs of charred pine trees and dozens of lonesome chimneys.
Thompson was one of the lucky ones. He didn’t lose his home.
Leaping from ridge top to ridge top in grass and oak woodlands, flames raced across the heart of the California wine country, claiming houses, hotels, at least one winery and a dairy.
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