Hostile residents, looting vex safety workers as California firefight continues

Views of the Bear Fire in Santa Cruz Mountains

First responders shot video of the blaze that broke out in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Jose, on Monday night, October 16, 2017. The flames are seen looking north from Bear Creek Road and the aerial fire retardant dunk shot Tuesday at 10
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First responders shot video of the blaze that broke out in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Jose, on Monday night, October 16, 2017. The flames are seen looking north from Bear Creek Road and the aerial fire retardant dunk shot Tuesday at 10

New wildfires broke out in the Santa Cruz Mountains Tuesday even as crews began to gain a tenuous hold on multiple fires in Sonoma, Napa, Yuba and Mendocino counties that have killed 41 and left thousands more with ashes where their homes once stood.

The Bear Fire started late Monday night in Boulder Creek and Tuesday covered about 200 acres, burned at least four buildings, threatened 150 others and prompted evacuations. Cal Fire reported it was burning in steep and inaccessible terrain and was only 5 percent contained Tuesday afternoon.

Further north in California’s wine county, tensions flared as weary residents waited to get back in neighborhoods they’d been forced to flee more than a week earlier.

At a Tuesday afternoon press conference, California Highway Patrol officer Jonathan Sloat said law enforcement officials and National Guard troops assigned to road blocks have been confronted by hostile residents. Four people – two of them intoxicated – have been arrested for attempting to force their way through, he said.

“We’ve had officers screamed at, spit at, cursed at,” Sloat said. “A National Guardsman told me yesterday that someone told him he is the enemy because he was keeping them out. These folks are all here to help us. We don’t want to send them away with that kind of feeling from Sonoma County, because I’m sure most Sonoma County residents do not feel that way.”

Sloat urged residents to remember that those manning the checkpoints have a job to do – and that the decisions to keep the roads closed are being made by their superiors.

“The decision is being made somewhere else, and they are just enforcing it,” he said.

While some residents are getting angry, those showing appreciation for first responders were also asked to throttle back. Cal Fire operations chief Steve Crawford asked locals to refrain from bringing more food to firefighters, some of whom have said they’re overwhelmed with meals and drinks being dropped off.

“Cards or words of appreciation…is really what keeps firefighters going,” Crawford said.

Looting in closed neighborhoods remains a concern.

Santa Rosa Police chief Hank Schreeder said his agency alone has received around 160 calls about possible suspicious activity in the fire area, and his agency has made 18 arrests for theft, burglary or looting.

Meanwhile, Sonoma County officials announced Tuesday that the numbers of people who remain unaccounted for has dropped from roughly 2,000 in the heart of the crisis to 53 – down from 88 a day earlier.

Sgt. Spencer Crum of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said Santa Rosa police are trying to locate 26 people and his agency is hunting for the remaining 27.

Crum said at this point, investigators are focusing their searches on recovering bodies in “systematic searches of the neighborhoods” with about 200 search specialists currently in the field. Schreeder said hard-hit areas like Coffey Park wouldn’t be reopened to residents until those searches were done.

“Search and rescue teams are out there and we are using cadaver dogs,” Crum said.

The challenge is some of the areas remain unsafe for the dogs.

“It can’t be hot,” Crum said. “There can’t be a lot of metal objects that hurt the dogs.”

To help make sure rescuers aren’t at risk, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said that search and rescue crews are using drones to scan for hazards from the air. To avoid interfering with the searchers, Giordano urged residents to stop flying their drones over the disaster areas.

James Core, vice chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said 11 evacuation shelters remained open, but only 401 people were inside them, down from a high of about 5,000 immediately following the fires. He said Santa Rosa had also lifted restrictions on drinking water and the municipal supply was now safe without boiling.

Cal Fire reported Tuesday morning that in the past week, more than 245,000 acres have burned across California.

The fires, fueled by powerful Diablo wind gusts of more than 60 mph, erupted in the middle of the night on Oct. 8. They have destroyed 5,700 homes and businesses. Thirty four thousand people remain evacuated around the state.

Tuesday afternoon, the Tubbs Fire in Napa was 82 percent contained after burning more than 36,000 acres. The Pocket Fire in Sonoma was 58 percent contained, while Nuns and related fires in the Napa-Sonoma area were 58 percent contained.

In Yuba County, all fires were reported as close to 100 percent contained Tuesday.

Cal Fire officials said despite the progress, they weren’t pulling back efforts to quell the fires – 11,000 firefighters are fighting them across the state.

The fires are the deadliest series of fires in California’s history.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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