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Death toll rises to 24 as crews begin grim search among ashes of wine country fires

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

Oct. 12-- SANTA ROSA, Calif.-As weary fire crews began to make progress against a firestorm that has killed at least 24 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.

"We're moving into a recovery phase," Giordano said.

Giordano's department 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 had so far escaped fire.

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

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.

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

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.

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 Cal Fire spokesman Richard Cordova. "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 of them 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.

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.

Firefighters 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.

Forecasted gusts of up to 40 mph are expected to ease Thursday afternoon, diminishing the risk of a runaway fire.

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.

Calistoga, in the upper Napa Valley, remained untouched by the encroaching Tubbs fire on Thursday, according to Mayor Chris Canning. However, he said the community was not yet in the clear and that residents and gawkers should stay away.

Those who return "are on your own," he said, 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."

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."

Authorities said that with communications hobbled by downed cellphone towers and people making hasty escapes, they were hopeful that most, if not all, of the others would turn up safe.

The fires have consumed an estimated 160,000 acres and 3,500 structures.

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"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 have already been pressed into service. State officials have requested more than 300 additional engines from other states and the federal government.

Napa city officials issued evacuation advisories for neighborhoods along the eastern edges of the city, warning residents to be prepared to leave. Just before 9 p.m. Wednesday, Santa Rosa police also issued an evacuation advisory for neighborhoods in the city's eastern end, while other neighborhoods along the north end of the city are under mandatory evacuation orders.

Not everyone was listening.

"I'm not leaving," said Calistoga resident Dennis DeVilbiss, a former police officer and firefighter.

"Why should I?" the 60-year-old said, standing on the wooden front porch of his cul-de-sac home on the south end of the resort town as smoke wafted over nearby forests. "I'm in a good spot. I'm monitoring all the radio bands. I just put a sprinkler on my roof. Oh, and I've got goggles, heavy gloves and a respirator."

He paused, and added with a smile, "I'm not stupid. If it's time to run, I'll run like hell."

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