SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Search-and-rescue teams, some with cadaver dogs, started looking for bodies Thursday in parts of California wine country devastated by wildfires, authorities said, sounding a warning that more dead were almost sure to emerge from the charred ruins.
At least 24 people have died and at least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the blazes, which were well on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history.
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said officials were still investigating hundreds of reports of missing people and that recovery teams would soon 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.
Some remains have been identified using medical devices that turned up in the scorched heaps that were once homes.
“There have been IDs in this case, in a pile of ash and bone, where there was a piece of metal left from somebody’s surgery, like a hip replacement, with an ID number that helped us identify the person,” he said.
Winds up to 45 mph (72 kph) were expected Thursday in areas north of San Francisco. Those conditions could erase modest gains made by firefighters.
“It’s going to continue to get worse before it gets better,” state Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said Wednesday.
The ferocious fires that started Sunday leveled entire neighborhoods in parts of Sonoma and Napa counties. In anticipation of the next round of flames, entire cities evacuated, leaving their streets empty, with the only motion coming from ashes falling like snowflakes.
Tens of thousands of people have been driven from their homes by the flames. A few left behind cookies for firefighters and signs reading, “Please save our home!”
In Calistoga, a historic resort town known for wine tastings and hot springs, 5,300 people were under evacuation orders.
The 22 fires, many out of control, spanned more than 265 square miles (686 square kilometers) as the inferno entered its fourth day. Strategic attacks that have curbed destruction and death tolls in recent years have not worked against the ferocity of the blazes.
Officials were concerned that the many separate blazes would merge into larger infernos.
“We are literally looking at explosive vegetation,” Pimlott said.
“Make no mistake,” he added later, “this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event.”
Officials say fire crews have some progress on the deadliest fire in Sonoma County, bringing containment to 10 percent.
The ash rained down on Sonoma Valley, covering windshields, as winds picked up. Countless emergency vehicles hurried toward the flames, sirens blaring, as evacuees sped away after jamming possessions into their cars and filling their gas tanks.
Officials said 8,000 firefighters and other personnel were battling the blazes, with more resources pouring in from Arizona, Nevada, Washington and Oregon.
Helicopters and air tankers assisted thousands of firefighters who were 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 communities without warning.
Fires were “burning faster than firefighters can run, in some situations,” Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci said.
In Southern California, cooler weather and moist ocean air helped firefighters gain ground against a wildfire that has scorched nearly 14 square miles (36 sq. kilometers).
Orange County fire officials said the blaze was 60 percent contained.