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Death toll climbs to 28 as crews begin grim search among ashes of California wine country fires

Los Angeles Times — By Louis Sahagun, Paige St. John, Nina Agrawal and Sonali Kohli Los Angeles Times

Oct. 12-- SANTA ROSA, Calif.-As weary fire crews began to make progress against a firestorm that has killed at least 28 people in Northern California's wine country, local officials said Thursday that they have begun a grim search for more bodies amid the ashes of burned communities.

At a morning news conference, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano told reporters that a 14th person was found dead in his county as search crews and cadaver dogs began sifting through debris for the first time Thursday.

The searches can take hours, and identification will be difficult, Giordano said at the briefing.

"So far, in the recoveries, we have found bodies that were almost completely intact and bodies that were nothing more than ash and bone," he said, noting that in the latter cases, sometimes the only way to identify someone is through a medical device, like a metal hip replacement, that has an ID number.

"We will do everything in our power to locate all the missing persons, and I promise you we will handle the remains with care and get them returned to their loved ones," Giordano said.

Asked whether he expected the death toll to rise, Giordano said, "I'd be unrealistic if I didn't."

Sonoma County has received 900 reports of missing people. Of those, 437 people have been located and are safe.

At the same time Thursday, state and local officials expressed optimism that milder-than-expected winds and additional firefighting crews from across California were allowing them to make progress against the worst of the fires.

"We need to hit this thing hard and get it done," Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tom Gossner told hundreds of firefighters battling the devastating Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa. "It's time to finish this thing."

Fire authorities had feared that 40 mph winds predicted for early Thursday morning would further stoke flames and carry embers to residential areas that so far had escaped fire.

But those winds never materialized in the vicinity of Calistoga, where mandatory evacuation orders had forced 5,000 residents from their homes the previous afternoon. Cal Fire spokesman Richard Cordova said the lull allowed crews to establish a 10 percent containment around the 34,200-acre Tubbs fire.

On Thursday morning, Calistoga was still a ghost town, apart from a few dozen residents who stayed behind and a Cal Fire incident command center at the Old Faithful Geyser in Calistoga

Motorcycle officers wearing masks were circling the deserted streets. Everything was closed in the downtown area-the art galleries, wine tasting rooms, cafes. Thick smoke hung like fog. Roads leading into town were closed.

There is still concern for Calistoga and elsewhere, as officials expect winds between 10 mph and 20 mph Thursday night, and stronger seasonal winds over the weekend, Cal Fire spokeswoman Heather Williams said.

Those who return "are on your own," said Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning, warning residents not to expect personal fire protection.

"If you are trying to visit Calistoga, you are not welcome," Canning said. "To the Calistogans out there, stay strong."

About 10 miles away from the city at Napa Valley College, a Red Cross shelter swelled with hundreds of evacuees.

Crews also managed to start a containment line for the 43,000-acre Atlas fire-good news for Napa residents who were warned Wednesday afternoon that they might have to evacuate eastern sections of town closest to the fire.

The Atlas fire, which began in Napa and moved into Solano County, has put the Green Valley area in danger, Williams said. That area had mandatory evacuations earlier in the week.

"Additional resources are starting to give us the upper hand," said Cal Fire deputy incident commander Barry Biermann in Napa.

Firefighters in Napa and Solano counties were warned Thursday morning that critical "red flag" conditions remain, with strong winds, low humidity and "extremely receptive fuels," according to Thursday morning's Cal Fire incident management plan for the Atlas and neighboring fires.

Despite continuing red flag conditions, forecasts called for cooler daytime temperatures and relatively light winds Thursday. Fire authorities were predicting a generally productive day.

While that forecast may give firefighters hope, tens of thousands of residents throughout the region were still reeling from the devastation.

The fires have consumed an estimated 180,000 acres and 3,500 structures.

Beneath choking smoke-filled skies that made the morning sun appear deep orange, upscale neighborhoods on the northern edges of Santa Rosa were in ashes, along with gas stations, big-box stores and vineyards. Charming country towns of little more than a few antique shops, the post office and a grocery store remained emptied by evacuation orders.

Road closures are turning routine drives into long, circuitous routes across a landscape with fires burning and columns of smoke rising in almost every direction.

"It may be several days or more than a week before people who've been displaced can start the process of healing and rebuilding," said Cordova, the Cal Fire spokesman. "That cannot happen until we remove all the hazards out there: downed power lines, toppled trees, smoldering hot spots and power outages."

Thousands of people forced from their homes remain gathered in Red Cross shelters, and some still don't know whether they have a home to return to.

Throughout the region, major highways and country lanes were packed with PG&E trucks aggressively working to restore communications by repairing downed power lines and replacing destroyed telephone poles.

There are a total of 17 fires in the area, Williams said.

The weaker winds also aided firefighters on the 9,500-acre Partrick fire, but the danger of its pushing into Sonoma and Vineburg remained Thursday.

The Mendocino Lake Complex fires, which include the Redwood and Sulphur fires, reached 32,500 acres by Thursday, she said. The larger, 29,500-acre Redwood fire is 5 percent contained, and the Sulphur fire is 40 percent contained, Williams said.

"They do have structures that have been destroyed-a couple hundred residential structures and nearly 100 outbuildings," she said.

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The area saw mandatory evacuations Monday night in Potter Valley.

Vineyards may have kept wine country fire from getting worse

The winds can reignite embers and send them hurtling through the air. If they land in areas not yet burned, there would be little that firefighters could do to stop them from setting off new conflagrations, officials said.

"Every glowing ember is a ticking time bomb," said Stephen Warren, a Cal Fire apparatus engineer.

In addition to Calistoga, residents of Geyserville, in Sonoma County, were ordered to leave their homes Wednesday night, and some in the northeast portion of Santa Rosa were advised to evacuate voluntarily.

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Sonoma County also ordered Rio Lindo Adventist Academy, a boarding school on the outskirts of Healdsburg near the edge of the Tubbs fire, to prepare to evacuate if necessary. The school is "up a very long, narrow, two-lane road," said Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Brandon Jones "Logistically, it's a nightmare to evacuate."

"We've had big fires in the past," Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday at a briefing with state and federal fire officials. "This is one of the biggest."

Statewide, 30 air tankers, nearly 75 helicopters and 550 fire engines with several thousand firefighters already have been pressed into service. State officials have requested more than 300 additional engines from other states and the federal government.

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(Los Angeles Times staff reporters Alene Tchekmedyian and Chris Megerian contributed to this report.)

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