Northern California Wildfires Kill 29; Nearly 400 Still Missing, Officials Say

Sean Breslin
Published: October 12, 2017

Nearly 400 people are still missing in Northern California's Sonoma County as firefighters battle the 53-square-mile Tubbs fire.

Officials have fielded more than 1,000 reports of missing residents and located at least 600, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano told reporters Thursday afternoon. With more than 20 detectives on the ground investigating each of the reports, Giordano also said there may be many duplicates in the list, while many others may have found safety but have yet to contact officials or loved ones.

The Tubbs fire is just one of nearly two dozen wildfires burning through California, fueled by the return of strong winds.

"Make no mistake, this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event," said Ken Pimlott, chief of the department.

(MORE: Northern California Wineries Burned, Others Under Siege)

The series of fires is already among the worst in California history, and Pimlott says the situation is "going to continue to get worse before it gets better."

Firefighters will be struggling with windy conditions through the weekend, said weather.com meteorologist Linda Lam, and could see gusts up to 45 mph over the next several days.

Crews have made little headway on the fires, which have killed 29 people, turned entire Northern California neighborhoods to ash and destroyed at least 3,500 homes and businesses. The blazes have left at least 180 people injured, while more than 4,400 people were staying in shelters Wednesday.

(MORE: Why California's Wildfires Are Worse in the Fall Months)

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office has confirmed 15 fire-related deaths. Officials in Mendocino County have confirmed eight deaths there in connection with the fires.

In Yuba County, sheriff's deputies discovered a body inside a burned residence in Loma Rica on Tuesday. According to a statement from the sheriff's office, the remains were discovered during a welfare check conducted after a citizen reported a family friend missing at that location following the Cascade Fire evacuations. 

Another Yuba County resident died while trying to flee the flames in her vehicle, the county's coroner confirmed Tuesday to KCRA.com. Two other deaths were announced in Yuba County Thursday afternoon, and all four deaths in the county have been blamed on the Cascade fire.

Two deaths were reported Monday in Napa County, according to Cal Fire.

The Sonoma Sheriff's Office expanded mandatory evacuation orders Thursday evening.

On Thursday morning, authorities strongly encouraged residents to evacuate from the north side of Sonoma and in most of Boyes Hot Springs.

Authorities also ordered all residents of Calistoga, a historic small town in Northern California known for its wineries, to evacuate Wednesday, saying "conditions have worsened."

The Napa County Sheriff's Office said in an alert sent via cellphone and email that residents need to leave by 5 p.m.

Smoke fills the air in a nearly deserted downtown Calistoga, California, on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (Jane Tyska/East Bay Times via AP)

Earlier, officials went through the town of 5,000 people, knocking on doors to warn about 2,000 of them to leave.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office also issued mandatory evacuations in Geyserville, a small town of about 900 people.

More than 265 square miles have burned in urban and rural areas from flames fueled by winds and low humidity. 

"We are literally looking at explosive vegetation," he said. "It is very dynamic. These fires are changing by the minute in many areas."

Ash snowed over the Sonoma Valley, covering windshields, as winds begin picking up toward the potentially disastrous forecast speed of 30 mph. Cars of evacuees raced away from the flames while countless emergency vehicles raced toward them, sirens blaring. Residents manhandled canvas bags into cars jammed with possessions or filled their gas tanks.

"We have had big fires in the past. This is one of the biggest, most serious, and it's not over," Gov. Jerry Brown said at a news conference, alongside the state's top emergency officials. They said 8,000 firefighters and other personnel were battling the blazes and more resources were pouring in from Oregon, Nevada, Washington and Arizona.

The Signorello Estate winery burns in the Napa wine region in California on Oct. 9, 2017, as multiple wind-driven fires continue to whip through the region.
(Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

While in California for a fundraising event for Republican congressional candidates on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence promised federal assistance to California.

"I can assure you, as I did the governor, the federal government stands ready to provide any and all assistance to the state of California as your courageous firefighters and first responders confront this widening challenge," said Pence.

The dire situation prompted Brown to declare a state of emergency Monday in Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties, where the most devastating fires have burned. He's expected to survey the damage at a later date but doesn't want to get in the way of necessary firefighting tasks, spokesman Evan Westrup told the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Our focus is on getting resources where they're needed most, not pulling them away for photo-ops with the governor," Westrup told the Chronicle.

Marian Williams, a resident of the small Sonoma County town of Kenwood, described the blaze to AP as "an inferno like you've never seen before."

"Trees were on fire like torches," she said.

The Tubbs fire, which ignited around 10 p.m. Sunday, had burned nearly 44 square miles by late Tuesday night. As of Thursday afternoon local time, the fire was 10 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

"There was no wind, then there would be a rush of wind and it would stop," resident Ken Moholt-Siebert told the Los Angeles Times. "Then there would be another gust from a different direction. The flames wrapped around us. I was just being pelted with all this smoke and embers. It was just really fast."

(MORE: The Latest on the Southern California Wildfires)

The L.A. Times noted that entire blocks in the Fountaingrove area of Santa Rosa were leveled by the conflagration, and the city’s new fire station, Fire Station 5, was destroyed. The fire also burned Santa Rosa’s historic round barn, the city's K-mart, the Santa Rosa Hilton Sonoma Hotel and destroyed homes at the Journey's End Mobile Home Park.

"It’s real bad," Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Tuberville told the L.A. Times. "This is an example of nature in control, and we are doing what we can, but we’re not being that effective at stopping the fire."

Authorities continue to investigate the cause of the fires. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Janet Upton told the Associated Press downed power lines could to blame for starting some or all of these blazes, or they might have been sparked some other way.


The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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