Wine country wildfires already well on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history could gain momentum Thursday and erase even the modest gains firefighters have made.
Steady winds with gusts up to 45 mph with nearly non-existent humidity are expected to descend on the areas north of San Francisco where at least 35 people have died and at least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed. A total of 191,437 acres — or nearly 300 square miles — have burned since the fires ignited late Sunday.
Of the more than two dozen people who perished in the calamitous fires, 18 lived in Sonoma County, eight in Mendocino County, two in Napa County and four in Yuba County.
"We are a long way from being done with this catastrophe," Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said Thursday. Pimlott said the blazes are expected to spread as firefighters — some of whom have lost their own homes — brace for additional days of bone-dry humidity and gusty winds through the weekend.
"What this means is our fires are going to continue to burn erratically," Pimlott said. "They have the potential to shift in any direction at any time."
The coroner identified 15 of the 18 who died in Sonoma County. Ten of their names were released Thursday: Carol Collins-Swasey, 76, of Santa Rosa; Lynne Anderson Powell, 72, of Santa Rosa; Arthur Tasman Grant, 95, of Santa Rosa; Suiko Grant, 75, of Santa Rosa; Donna Mae Halbur, 80, of Larkfield (Santa Rosa); Leroy Peter Halbur, 80, of Larkfield; Valerie Lynn Evans, 75, of Santa Rosa; Carmen Caldentey Berriz, 75, of Apple Valley; Michael John Dornbach, 57, of Calistoga; and Veronica Elizabeth McCombs, 67, of Santa Rosa.
Fires within the city limits of Santa Rosa alone have gutted 2,834 homes, according to Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey. Roughly 400,000 square feet of commercial space has also been destroyed.
"The city of Santa Rosa has suffered a serious blow in these fires," Coursey said, adding that the destruction numbers could rise.
Flames across wine country have driven tens of thousands from their homes. Some who took shelter at Napa Valley College expressed frustration at not knowing anything of the conditions of the homes they'd fled. They also said they have no idea when they can return — or what to expect when they get there.
Napa Sheriff John Robertson said Thursday that deputies would begin escorting people with "critical needs" into certain parts of the city. Exigent conditions include checking on pets, retrieving medication, business needs and checking on people who stayed behind, he said.
Entire cities were evacuated in anticipation of the next wave of fires, their streets empty, the only motion coming from ashes falling like snowflakes.
A mandatory evacuation order in Calistoga forced all 5,300 residents to get to safety. Early Thursday, flames shot into the air just miles away from downtown Calistoga, sending a haze of smoke into the normally bustling town, known for wine tastings and hot springs.
Someone left behind a note and some protein bars in the ghost town, asking firefighters to save a family's home. Derek Bohan, who was born and raised in Calistoga, said the experience has been "definitely scary."
Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning had strong words for people who were ignoring the mandatory evacuation order.
"Your presence in Calistoga is not welcome if you’re not a first responder," he said. "Your choice to say – and there have been very few of them – is a distraction to our first responders. You will not be given life safety support at this point. You are on your own.
"If you’re trying to visit Calistoga, you are not welcome. That is very hard for us to say because we’ve been known since the 1800s as a very hospitable community. That’s not helpful at this point."
In addition to Calistoga, firefighters are paying close attention to Sonoma, Middletown and Geyserville due to the increased threat of fire danger.
"The situation is very dynamic and oftentimes can change by the minute or by the hour," Pimlott said.
A total of 21 fires burning across the state have torched more than 191,000 acres as they entered their fourth day, many of them without much containment. Modern, strategic attacks that have kept destruction and death tolls low in recent years have been ineffective against their ferocity.
The Atlas Fire has burned over 43,762 acres in Napa and Solano counties and is 3 percent contained; the Tubbs Fire has scorched roughly 34,270 acres in Napa County and is 10 percent contained; the Nuns Fire has burned 14,698 acres in Sonoma County and is 3 percent contained; the Partrick-Carneros Fire in Napa County has charred over 10,817 acres and is 2 percent contained; the Pocket Fire has burned 8,130 acres in Sonoma County; the Adobe Fire has scorched 7,955 acres in Sonoma County and is 1 percent contained; the Norrbom Fire in Sonoma County has burned 4,331 acres and is 1 percent contained; and the Pressley Fire has torched 473 acres in Sonoma County and is 1 percent contained, Cal Fire said.
At a news conference Thursday, Belia Ramos, chairwoman of the Napa County board of supervisors, said that crews have begun making progress on containing the flames, which she described as "really good news."
Pimlott echoed that sentiment, saying that resources pouring in across state and even international lines have helped in the firefighting effort. More than 8,000 firefighters and other personnel are currently battling the blazes, and additional resources continue to flow in from states such as Arizona, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, South Carolina and North Carolina. International relief has come from Canada and as far away as Australia.
Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said that despite a Red Flag Warning being in effect, overnight winds didn't really pick up to the extent that had been predicted. That allowed firefighters to go from only protecting structures and keeping people safe to being able to "get some containment started."
"We have a long way to go," but fatigue has already become a major concern for Cal Fire officials, Biermann acknowledged.
"Safety is our top priority – safety of the people we’re out there to help protect, safety of our crews," he said.
However, Biermann admitted, "We have people who have been on that fire for over three days, who don’t want to leave their section of line because there's still work to do, there’s homes to save and they're very passionate about it."
Biermann said firefighters who are hitting "roadblocks" are being identified, taken out of the field and asked to rest.
In Fairfield, some of which was evacuated Wednesday due to the advancement of the Atlas Fire, officials tracking wind conditions said that flames have not reached city limits, and may actually be heading in the opposite direction. But that could change at any time so residents have been asked to keep their bags packed and stay ready to evacuate on a moment's notice.
The community of Boyes Hot Springs in Sonoma County also was told to clear out Wednesday, and the streets were quickly lined with cars packed with people fleeing.
"That's very bad," resident Nick Hinman said when a deputy sheriff warned him that the driving winds could shift the wildfires toward the town of Sonoma proper, where 11,000 people live. "It'll go up like a candle."
The ash rained down on the Sonoma Valley, covering windshields, as winds began picking up toward the potentially disastrous forecast speed of 30 mph. Countless emergency vehicles sped toward the flames, sirens blaring, as evacuees sped away. Residents manhandled canvas bags into cars jammed with possessions or filled their gas tanks.
County spokesman Scott Alonso said Thursday that 25,000 residents have been evacuated. Of them, an estimated 3,800 are living in shelters.
At the start of the week, Sonoma County had opened 40 shelters, but is now down to 24, with the hope of "consolidating and enhancing" the mental health and medical services offered to people impacted by the fires, Alonso said. The evacuation centers can accommodate another 4,000 people.
"The damage and devastation is real. The fire threat is still very real in this county," Alonso stressed. "It’s a very emotional time for a lot of folks. They’ve lost everything."
The Bay Area awoke to smoke-filled air Thursday and even San Francisco's layer of fog had been replaced by smog. The poor air quality forced the cancellation of the Virgin Sport San Francisco Festival of Fitness, which includes the Twin Peaks Mile and SF Bay Half marathon.
"We're seeing elevated levels of particulate matter that are higher than we’ve ever seen since we began measuring them in 2000," said Lisa Fasno with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Officials have issued a Spare the Air alert on Thursday.
As the fires grow, officials voiced concern that separate blazes would merge into even larger infernos.
Flames have raced across the wine-growing region and the scenic coastal area of Mendocino farther north, leveling whole neighborhoods and leaving only brick chimneys and charred appliances to mark where homes once stood.
The Redwood/Potter Fire burning in Mendocino County has torn through 32,100 acres and is 5 percent contained; the Sulphur Fire has torched 2,500 acres in Lake County and is 45 percent contained; and the Cascade Fire in Yuba County has burned 10,171 acres and is 45 percent contained, officials said.
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano on Thursday said hundreds of people were still reported missing. But officials believe many of those people will be found. Chaotic evacuations and poor communications over the past few days have made locating friends and family difficult.
Giordano said approximately 1,000 missing persons reports were filed in the wake of the fast-moving blazes that knocked out power lines and cell towers, effectively creating a dead zone in the North Bay. Amid a lack of communication, Sonoma County officials have safely located 603 people, he said. Roughly 400 people remain outstanding.
While officials work to reconnect loved ones, the recovery phase has commenced. Identifying the deceased is "going to be a slow process" because of the active fires, Giordano admitted.
"So far in the recovery, we have found bodies that were almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones," he said.
At least five people have been arrested in Sonoma County on suspicion of trying to loot, according to Giordano. Two of those people were arrested Wednesday night after being found in the evacuation zones.
Helicopters and air tankers were assisting thousands of firefighters trying to beat back the flames. Until now, the efforts have focused on "life safety" rather than extinguishing the blazes, partly because the flames were shifting with winds and targeting new communities without warning.
"We are not out of this emergency," Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci said Thursday. "We're not even close to being out of this emergency."