The death toll from raging California wildfires on Thursday rose to 31 as body recovery teams used cadaver dogs to locate victims, making it the deadliest series of blazes in the state’s history.
The fires, which began on Sunday, have swept through California’s wine country, leaving thousands of people homeless and burning more than 76,000 hectares of land.
Gusty winds on Thursday were hampering the efforts of 8,000 firefighters battling 20 blazes, and weather conditions were not forecast to improve.
“What this means is that our fires will continue to burn erratically,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) Director Ken Pimlott told a news conference. “They have the potential to shift in any direction at any time.”
“We are a long way from being done with this catastrophe,” he added.
The department on Thursday announced that the fires have killed 31, while Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said that his agency has received about 1,100 reports of missing persons.
Of those, “745 of them, roughly, have been located safe,” while “we still have 400 outstanding,” Giordano said, adding that the actual figure might be smaller because there are sometimes duplicate reports.
He said targeted body recovery efforts had begun in cases where all other leads were exhausted.
“We’re moving into a recovery phase,” Giordano said. “We have cadaver dogs up here that can basically scent bodies and help us find people.”
He warned that it was “going to be a slow process” as fires continue to burn, and that identifying victims would be difficult.
“Some of these remains are actually intact bodies — much easier to identify, much easier to get things from. Some of them are merely ashes and bones, and we may never get truly confirmative identification on ashes,” Giordano said.
In cases in which bodies have been badly burned, authorities have had to use dental records and serial numbers on medical devices to identify the dead.
Asked if he expected the death toll to rise, Giordano said: “I’d be unrealistic if I didn’t.”
The sheriff said that of the 17 people confirmed dead in Sonoma, 10 have now been identified.
“The youngest person on this list is 57 years old. The bulk of them are in their 70s and 80s,” Giordano said.
As recovery teams began searching for victims, evacuations were ordered for towns in wine-producing Napa and Sonoma counties, where hundreds of people have already lost their homes to the fast-moving infernos.
Residents of Calistoga, a resort town of about 5,000 people in Napa, and Geyserville, a town of about 800 people in Sonoma, were told to leave and seek shelter elsewhere.
Entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa have been reduced to ashes, and evacuation orders were issued for additional parts of the devastated city of 175,000 people in Sonoma.
Cal Fire said that strong winds could spark new fires.
“These winds will continue to challenge firefighters in their efforts towards containment and will increase the risk for new fires,” the department said.
The US National Weather Service said that wind gusts of up to 80kph were forecast in some areas and that “critical fire weather conditions” would continue into the weekend.
Hundreds of fire engines and dozens of firefighting crews were being transported in from other states, Pimlott said.
“Hour by hour, more resources pour in,” he said.
A state emergency management official said that authorities were looking into transporting firefighters from as far away as Australia.
Cal Fire veteran firefighter David Shew said the wildfires were like nothing he has seen before.
“I’ve been with Cal Fire for 30 years and I’ve seen big fires, but this is extraordinary, having that many and that large and going so fast,” he told reporters.
Thousands of people have been left homeless and 25,000 people have evacuated their homes in Sonoma alone, officials said.
More than 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed, including several wineries in Sonoma and Napa, the heart of the state’s extensive wine production.
US President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in California, freeing up federal funding and resources to help fight the fires, and California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in eight counties.
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