Over five days, the cluster of wildfires that’ve broken out in California’s wine country have claimed at least 31 lives – making this the deadliest week for wildfires in the state’s history. And with the remains of many incinerated homes still too hot to enter, authorities say that number is likely to climb – perhaps significantly – as elderly residents of the afflicted communities were blindsided by the fires’ ferocity, and many were unable to flee in time.
The average age of the 10 victims whose names have been released is 75, state officials said. The youngest was 57.
Whole neighborhoods have been reduced to smoldering rubble. Meanwhile, an army of firefighters have had little success trying to suppress the flames; the largest conflagrations continue to burn virtually unimpeded. Local firefighters, many of whom have worked for days on end with little or no sleep despite their own homes having burned to the ground, are finally being relieved by reinforcements from out of state, CNN reported.
Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano described the grim reality of the body recovery efforts, which he said had only just begun.
"We're moving into a recovery phase," Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said. "That is the reality part of it."
Speaking late Thursday, Giordano said that two more bodies had been recovered as search teams moved into areas where people had been reported missing in the wake of the fires.
"We have found bodies almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones," Giordano said.
California’s iconic wine country – comprising Sonoma and Napa counties – has been particularly hard hit, as have Mendocino, Yuba, Nevada, Butte and Orange counties. As of late Thursday, 21 fires spanned 300 square miles – up from 8 on Tuesday. Most are still less than 10% contained. So far, more than 3,000 homes and businesses have been destroyed, as NPR reported.
And the unfortunate reality, as one firefighter acknowledged, is that the fires could continue to burn for days, because there’s no end in sight.
"We are not even close to being out of this emergency," said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state's Office of Emergency Services.
County officials described flying over neighborhoods that had been totally decimated, with not one single structure still standing.
Shirlee Zane, one of the district supervisors for Sonoma County, says she flew over communities that "looked like war zones. They looked like somebody had bombed them."
"The air quality is very dangerous right now," she tells NPR. "It's thick, with brown smoke. People cannot really go outside. It's really not safe. You see a lot of people going around with face masks."
Wayne Peterson of Sonoma described the air as "acrid."
"I'm wearing the mask because I've been here two or three days now, I live here," Petersen was quoted by The Associated Press as saying. "It's starting to really affect my breathing and lungs so I'm wearing the mask. It's helping."
Santa Rosa, a small city that serves as the county seat for Sonoma County, was particularly hard hit. The LA Times reported that officials said they were stunned by the scale of the destruction. An estimated 2,834 homes were destroyed in the city of Santa Rosa alone, along with about 400,000 square feet of commercial space, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said in a news conference Thursday afternoon.
Flames left entire neighborhoods and commercial districts in ruins and – in a disturbingly ironic twist – even gutted the city’s new fire station.
State and local officials expressed hope that the milder winds on Wednesday and Thursday would help fire crews contain the flames. But forecasters are now saying that strong nearly hurricane force winds and hot conditions will return on Friday and Saturday.
Though the cause of the fires has not yet been confirmed, the local utility said that the strong winds knocked trees into power lines, which could’ve sparked fires given the dry conditions.