More than 9,000 firefighters battled massive wildfires Friday for the sixth straight day, making progress in critical areas and giving officials hope that they may soon get a handle on the deadliest wildfire week in California history.
But they cautioned that the exact same conditions that spawned the rash of firestorms in Northern California Sunday night – tinder-dry vegetation and wind gusts of up to 45 mph – could spark deadly new blazes the length of the state.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said Friday. “Red flag warnings have been posted for tonight through the weekend.
“There will be ...very low humidity, dry air and winds that could be in excess of 45 miles per hour over the existing fires.”
The official death toll from the fires increased to 32 Friday with the discovery of an 18th victim in Sonoma County. Hundreds more remain missing in that area.
Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said 45 search and rescue workers and 30 detectives are scouring the fire zones looking for victims.
More than 250 people remained missing in Sonoma County Friday. Giordano said he expects many of those people still will be found safe, but he also has made it clear the number of dead may continue to increase as searchers gain access to more burned neighborhoods.
By Friday afternoon, Cal Fire said 17 large fires were burning in the north state. They had consumed 350 square miles – an area more than seven times the size of San Francisco – and destroyed at least 5,700 structures. The city of Santa Rosa saw the most widespread destruction, with 2,800 homes destroyed, along with commercial structures. About 20,000 people were evacuated at one point, and more than 3,000 remained displaced Friday.
“We understand that lives have been changed forever by these events,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “This is difficult.
“We’re going to get through this, however. The emergency is not over and we continue to work at it, but we are seeing some great progress in some of the areas that the fires have impacted.”
Despite widespread speculation over whether downed Pacific Gas and Electric power lines may have sparked at least some of the blazes, Cal Fire said no cause for any of the fires has been determined yet and may not be for some time.
“Investigators are actively investigating the cause and origin of all of these fires,” Pimlott said. “Literally, in Sonoma County alone, we have 20 cause and origin investigators working on that.
“It’s a painstaking process; it’s very technical. Clues, information, all these things can be consumed in a fire. We can’t talk about it. I don’t even know what’s going on out there.”
The fires, whipped by winds that gusted at up to 75 mph in some areas, descended on communities with little or no warning, trapping some people in their homes and others in their cars as they tried to flee at the last moment.
Authorities emphasized Friday that similar weather conditions expected this weekend make the situation dangerous for virtually everyone in the state, and that residents have to be ready to leave immediately if more fire erupts.
“It’s always easier to leave the area before the fire occurs than to wait until the fire is bearing down on your community or home,” Pimlott said. “Not a half hour, not an hour, you have to be thinking about that in minutes. That may be all the time you have in these fast-moving fires.”
An influx of fresh firefighting teams from around the nation and from the federal government has helped increase the containment of some of the larger, more deadly fires. The Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, which ravaged Santa Rosa, was at 25 percent containment Friday, The Redwood/Potter fires in Mendocino County, where eight people died, were 10 percent contained.
Firefighters expressed confidence that they were making steady gains on containing the blazes. In some areas, authorities were fighting other problems that have become typical in the aftermath of a blaze: looting and price gouging.
Sonoma County sheriff’s officials arrested their sixth suspected looter Thursday, a man who allegedly stole life-saving equipment from a firefighter sent in to help.
The arrest stemmed from calls to deputies reporting a theft from a car and a fight at a park, sheriff’s officials said in a Facebook post.
“Deputies got to the park and detained Morgan Plumere of Sonoma,” the department said. “After some investigation we learned that Plumere had been seen taking a pair of sunglasses out of a car in an evacuation area. One neighbor called 911 while another neighbor followed Plumere to the park and confronted him.”
Deputies discovered Plumere was on probation and searched him, finding the glasses as well as items that a vineyard management company had previously reported stolen, the department said.
“Plumere was also in possession of an emergency fire shelter that appeared to have been taken from an out-of-county fire department that had responded to assist with the fire,” the Facebook post said. Such shelters are used by firefighters as a last-ditch lifesaving effort in the event a fire sweeps over them and they cannot escape.
Plumere, 30, was arrested on suspicion of looting, possession of stolen property, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of prescription medications without a prescription and violation of probation, the department said.
Authorities say they had arrested five other suspected looters in recent days and have 300 officers patrolling evacuated neighborhoods.
District Attorney Jill Ravitch said such cases will be prosecuted.
“No looting is going to be tolerated in this county,” Ravitch said. “I’ve been out in some of these terrible areas where people are putting signs on their doors saying, ‘Please don’t loot.’
“That’s not going to happen in Sonoma County.”
Ravitch added that she also is receiving reports of price-gouging, defined as firms increasing prices more than 10 percent following an emergency.
“That will not be tolerated, either,” she said.
As the search for victims continued, federal aid is arriving to assist survivors.
The White House approved Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for assistance to individuals and families affected by the wildfires in Sonoma and Napa counties, paving the way for grants and reimbursements to people for expenses such as hotel bills, medical needs, damage to homes and vehicles and other losses.
FEMA officials already are visiting some fire victims in shelters to get them registered for the aid. Anyone from those counties seeking assistance can register online at www.disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362.