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‘Ash and bones.’ Death toll in fires hits 31, sets state record

Tubbs Fire aftermath, as seen from above

An aerial view of the Tubbs Fire destruction of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa on Thursday, October 12, 2017.
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An aerial view of the Tubbs Fire destruction of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa on Thursday, October 12, 2017.

One was a 14-year-old boy found dead in the driveway of his Redwood Valley home, where his parents were badly burned and his 17-year-old sister so badly hurt she had both her legs amputated.

Some were found dead in cars and trucks as they tried to flee the firestorms, or inside homes where they apparently were trapped. Still others were discovered as piles of ash and bones, as though they already had passed through a cremation chamber.

By Thursday, officials throughout Northern California had begun cataloging the death toll of the huge fires that broke out Sunday night and plowed through cities, small mountain valleys and forests, killing at least 31 people. Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said Thursday night that two more people have been confirmed dead there.

The Oakland Hills fire of 1991 killed 25 people by itself, and the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933 killed 29. While no single fire currently burning has killed as many as those, state fire Deputy Director Daniel Berlant says collectively this is the deadliest series of simultaneous fires in the state in recorded history. Officials said they expected to find more bodies in the coming days.

“So far in the recoveries, we have found bodies that were almost completely intact,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said. “And we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones.

“There have been identifications in this case in a pile of ash and bones where there was a piece of metal left from somebody’s surgery, like a hip replacement with an ID number on it, and that helped us identify the person.”

Giordano, whose county had 15 deaths as of Thursday, the most of any affected by the fires, acknowledged there will be “extreme difficulties” in identifying some of the victims. The process could take months, he said.

Officials still were not formally releasing the identities of the dead, but some of their stories began to filter out on social media, including the harrowing tale of a family of four who were trapped in the Redwood Valley Fire in Mendocino early Monday.

Jon and Sara Shepherd tried to flee their mountain home with their children, Kressa Jean, 17, and Kai Logan, 14, according to Mindi Ramos, who said in an online post that she was Sara’s sister and that the family told her at 1 a.m. Monday they were leaving to escape the fire.

“We know they tried to escape down the driveway in a car,” Ramos wrote in a Generosity.com fundraising page that had raised more than $51,000 by late Thursday to help with medical and other costs. “We know the car caught on fire and they left on foot.”

“Our sweet boy...our brave, strong, talented boy...Kai Logan Shepherd, 14 years old, had already succumbed to the fire when he was found on the driveway,” Ramos wrote. “We are utterly devastated.

“Sara and Kressa were found on the driveway badly burned and disoriented and brought to safety. We don’t know how Jon got to the hospital or how he was found. Sara and Kressa both sustained burns on 60% of their bodies. Jon sustained burns on 45% of his body.”

Kressa Shepherd had surgery Thursday to amputate both her legs below the knee, according to the post.

“While this is another tragic turn, we are grateful her life was spared,” Ramos wrote. “If anyone can thrive after a tragedy like this, it’s Kressa Jean. Keep praying.”

Kai Shepherd is believed to be one of eight victims killed in Mendocino County.

At least four people are believed to have died in Yuba County in the Cascade Fire, including Stanley Coolidge, 78, a longtime attorney practicing civil and family law in Yuba City, and his fiancee, Roseann Hannah.

Granddaughter Candice Coolidge said authorities confirmed the deaths to family members late Wednesday, but declined to comment further.

Both are believed to have died in the Loma Rica area, where another victim, identified by neighbors as Sandy Picciano, 77, died early Monday after crashing her truck while trying to flee the fire. A fourth victim was discovered inside a home, and authorities said Thursday they are investigating the possibility of a fifth fatality.

Two other victims, Sara and Charles Rippey, who were 98 and 100, respectively, died in their home in Napa County.

Authorities said they expected to continue finding victims as they make their way into fire-ravaged areas in search of people reported missing. In Sonoma County alone, 1,000 people have been reported missing since the Tubbs Fire and other blazes broke out late Sunday.

The sheriff said about 400 of those are still missing, and most are expected to be found safe. But the death toll is expected to continue to increase.

“I’d be unrealistic if I didn’t” think more bodies will be found, Giordano said.

Search and rescue teams are using cadaver dogs and going to specific addresses of people reported missing. The condition of the victims has varied depending on how the fires swept over them.

“That is the reality of it,” Giordano said. “This next part is the rest of the reality: identification is going to be hard.”

Giordano added that some recoveries will have to wait until it is safe for teams to go into some neighborhoods. “I promise you that we will handle the remains with care,” he said, adding, “We need to respect the loved ones and the families of the dead.”

Gov. Jerry Brown gives an update on the California wildfires at an event in Sacramento on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2017.

Sonoma County has been the hardest hit of the fire zones, with thousands of people displaced and countless homes and businesses burned.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said his city had been devastated by the Tubbs Fire, with 2,834 homes destroyed and 400,010 square feet of commercial space incinerated.

“These are huge numbers,” he said. “These are as of today. They could get larger. We’ve also had some critical infrastructure destroyed, including our newest fire station…”

Sonoma County also has been the scene of multiple arrests for looting.

So far, the sheriff said, five people have been arrested on suspicion of looting, including two arrested inside a mandatory evacuation zone Wednesday night. Roughly 300 law enforcement officers, many of them from Bay Area departments, are patrolling the county along with 436 National Guard troops.

By Thursday afternoon, crews were battling 21 major fires that had scorched more than 191,000 acres statewide, and firefighters were concerned about winds spreading the flames into several communities in the coming days, including the city of Sonoma, Geyservillle, Middletown and Calistoga, which was evacuated Wednesday afternoon.

Officials also warned Mendocino County residents that winds expected Friday night could cause havoc with the Redwood Valley Fire and urged them to remain alert.

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam. Nashelly Chavez and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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