Northern California’s wildfires have now killed 31 people, making this the deadliest week of wildfires in state history.
Sonoma County sheriff Robert Giordano said Thursday night that two more people have been confirmed dead there. That raises the statewide death total from 29 to 31. The Oakland Hills fire of 1991 killed 29 people by itself.
While no one fire currently burning has killed that many, collectively this is the deadliest series of simultaneous fires in the state since records have been kept.
The blazes, most of them in wine country, broke out almost all at once on Sunday night. On Thursday, Sonoma and Napa counties endured a fourth day of choking smoke while many residents fled to shelters or camped out on beaches to await word on their homes and loved ones.
Meanwhile, a forecast for gusty winds and dry air threatened to fan the fires. Many of the flames still burned out of control, and the fires grew to more than 300 sq miles (777 sq km), an area as large as New York City.
Some of the state’s most historic tourist sites, including Sonoma city and Calistoga in Napa Valley, were ghost towns populated only by fire crews trying to stop the advancing infernos.
Calistoga, known for wine tastings and hot springs, had dozens of firefighters staged at street corners. Ash rained down from the sky and a thick haze covered the ground. Mayor Chris Canning warned that the fires were drawing closer and all of the city’s 5,000 residents needed to heed an evacuation order.
“This is a mandatory evacuation. Your presence in Calistoga is not welcome if you are not a first responder,” Canning said during a news briefing, explaining that firefighters needed to focus on the blazes and had no time to save people.
A few residents left behind cookies for fire crews with signs reading, “Please save our home!”
Giordano said officials were still investigating hundreds of reports of missing people and that recovery teams would begin conducting “targeted searches” for specific residents at their last known addresses.
“We have found bodies almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones,” the sheriff said.
Firefighters had reported modest gains, but containment of the flames seemed nowhere in sight.
“We are not out of this emergency. We are not even close to being out of this emergency,” said emergency operations director Mark Ghilarducci at a news conference.
More than 8,000 firefighters were battling the blazes, and more manpower and equipment was pouring in from around the country and from as far away as Australia, officials said.
Since igniting Sunday in spots across eight counties, the fires have transformed many neighborhoods into wastelands. At least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed and an estimated 25,000 people forced to flee.
The wildfires continued to grow in size. A total count of 22 fires on Wednesday fell to 21 on Thursday because two large fires merged, said state fire chief Ken Pimlott.
The challenge of fighting the fires was compounded by the need for more help and the growing fatigue of firefighters who have been working for days.
“We have people that have been on that fire for three days who don’t want to leave,” said Cal Fire’s deputy incident commander in Napa, Barry Biermann. “At some point, you hit a road block.”
Hundreds of evacuees fled to beaches far to the north of the fires, some sleeping on the sand on the first night of the blazes.
Since then, authorities have brought tents and sleeping bags and opened public buildings and restaurants to house people seeking refuge in the safety and clean air of the coastal community of Bodega Bay.
Local charities and residents went to Costco to buy supplies for the fleeing families. California Highway Patrol Officer Quintin Shawk took relatives and other evacuees into his home and office, as did many others.
“It’s like a refugee camp,” at his office, Shawk said.
Community members fed breakfast to some 200 people on the beach alone, and Patricia Ginochio, who owns a restaurant, opened the eatery for 300 more to sleep, she said. The evacuees’ arrival was heralded by a long line of headlights heading to beaches.
“The kids were scared,” Ginochio said, adding that temperatures by the beach drop dramatically at night. “They were shivering and freezing.”
Some lucky evacuees returned to find what they least expected.
Anna Brooner was prepared to find rubble and ashes after fleeing Santa Rosa’s devastated Coffey Park neighborhood.
Then she got a call from a friend: “You’re not going to believe this.” Her home was one of only a handful still standing.
“I swore when I left I was never coming back to this place,” Brooner said. “I feel so bad for all the other people. All of us came back thinking we had nothing left.”