California fire victims search for shreds of their lives, while deputies search for bones

A wedding ring that may still be in the ashes. A handgun belonging to a sheriff’s deputy. A lifelong collection of silver coins.

One by one Monday, Northern California residents returned to the burned out remains of their homes looking for family heirlooms, keepsakes or other reminders of the lives they led a week ago, before an inferno struck in the middle of the night.

Just past the checkpoint at the entrance to the Coffey Park subdivision of Santa Rosa, a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy wearing his uniform was standing sentinel while his wife sifted through the ashes, looking for a handgun that was in their house before it was obliterated.

The deputy said he already recovered four others from the remains of the home. He did not want his name printed because he was “just one of 50 sheriff’s deputies who lost his home.”

In the northeast corner of Coffey Park, near the court where the Tubbs Fire first began burning houses in Santa Rosa, Jeffrey Madura was hoping to find his wife’s wedding ring, looking through the ashes in a corner of his home’s foundation.

National Guard military police allowed him through their checkpoint after he told them why he needed in. Madura, who lived in the home for more than 20 years, had earlier hung two large American flags from the remnants of the house and arrived with three sifters he built from plywood and mesh for himself and his neighbors.

“It looks like a war zone. It looks like pictures I’ve seen of Dresden from World War II,” said Madura, who described fleeing the home with only a few minutes’ warning from a neighbor who ran house to house pounding on doors to warn people of the approaching flames.

“He basically saved everyone’s life here,” said Madura, owner of Jeffrey’s Hillside Cafe. He reopened the restaurant Wednesday to give his 18 employees a source of income while the community deals with the aftermath of the fire.

Not far from Madura’s house, nearly two dozen search and rescue workers from the Marin and Alameda sheriff’s offices spread out to form a line in the desolation and search for bodies.

Armed with shovels, rakes, GPS units and orange spray paint, they painstakingly walked a route north from the retaining wall of the subdivision looking for signs of bones. Gas lines are still leaking in some areas. The erratic winds that fueled the blaze early Monday left many homes completely destroyed, while others a few feet away were unscathed.

Fire officials are still marveling at the speed with which the blazes spread across the north state, especially in Sonoma County, where at least 22 people died.

Cal Fire Capt. Amy Head said the blaze moved about 10 miles from near Calistoga to Santa Rosa in three hours.

“I’m speechless,” she said. “I can’t even put into words how fast that is.”

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey estimated that nearly 3,000 homes burned in his city. He flew over the devastation Monday to get a sense of the scope of the damage.

“There are still fires burning,” Coursey said. “We’re not out of this yet, but I am confident we’ve got the right people on the job and we’ve got enough people on the job.”

At least 88 people remain missing in Sonoma County, Sheriff Rob Giordano said.

“I’m looking at a number between 22 and 88 right now ...,” Giordano said of the final death toll. “I’m quite confident it will be lower than that (88).”

But he acknowledged the possibility that some of the missing were killed in fires that consumed their homes and have not yet been discovered.

“I would expect to find some of the missing in their burned homes,” Giordano said. “We are still working on targeted searches.”

So far, officials say 41 people died because of the fires that tore through the wine country, Mendocino County and the foothills of Yuba County, northeast of Sacramento, on Oct. 8. That number includes a contract worker who was killed Monday when the water truck he was driving near the Napa Valley community of Oakville rolled over. The incident is under investigation.

Firefighters continued making progress against the blazes Monday and said they were hopeful that a predicted shift in the weather – including the possibility of rain – will help.

“We’re definitely looking for a change, and it looks like we’re going to get it finally,” said Mike Kochasic, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

Kochasic said a weather system building off the Pacific coast will strike landfall by Thursday. He said it could bring rain “area wide – all across Northern California.”

While the forecast could change, as much as an inch of rain could fall in the mountains Thursday, with a quarter- to a half-inch of rain falling over the wine country fire zones.

“It will definitely bring some fire relief,” he said. “That will keep keep the fires from spreading, hopefully.”

Roughly 40,000 people remained evacuated Monday, as 11,000 firefighters continued their efforts against 14 large fires still burning that have scorched 213,000 acres and more than 5,700 structures.

The blazes broke out late at night Oct. 8 across a wide swath of Northern California that was being swept with fierce winds. Separate fires devastated areas of Mendocino Napa and Yuba counties. In Mendocino County, officials said Monday that all evacuations have been lifted.

“Today was a good day, today was a turning point for for the county,” Sheriff Tom Allman said. “All 8,000 evacuees have been allowed to re-enter their house or the remains of their house.”

Allman said the county now has eight confirmed dead, a revision from Saturday, when nine were believed killed.

The deadliest of the fires was the Tubbs Fire, which killed 21 people and roared through Santa Rosa.

The last house that appears to have burned in the city’s Coffey Park neighborhood belonged to Chris and Kim Bipes, who were sifting through the rubble Monday looking for his silver coin collection – more than 50 pounds worth of the pure metal that he began collecting as a bank worker at age 15.

The couple had lived in the home for 23 years, and thought its metal roof might protect it. On Monday, the roof stood blackened and twisted and partially intact. Chris Bipes said he thought it may have helped firefighters who made a stand there halt the fire’s progress.

His neighbor’s house and 12 others on Randon Way were saved after firefighters set up a line of defense at the Bipes home and used tools from their shed to dig a line.

Neighbor Craig Lowry, who was allowed into the neighborhood because his house was intact, smuggled the couple past a checkpoint to help search for the coins. He said he wasn’t sure how he felt knowing his home was saved while theirs was destroyed.

“There is a guilt,” he said. “I could have lost everything. I’m just glad to be out here helping other people and not worrying about my house.”

Before Coffey Park was turned into a subdivision, the area was a prune orchard. The original farmhouse sits just south of the neighborhood and dates to 1903. It survived the blaze.

Owners Sue and David Sloat lost a two-story barn and guest house in the fire, and Dave Sloat was mourning the loss of his man cave and woodshop. But the couple was grateful.

“I just keep reminding myself we are one of the lucky ones,” Sue Sloat said.

Their feral cat, Kittyco, who was in the barn when the fire swept through, was found alive but with burned paws.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa Ryan Sabalow contributed

Related stories from Sacramento Bee