Several thousand more people were ordered Saturday to evacuate from the Northern California city of Santa Rosa as a new wildfire threatened the area, six days after deadly blazes started to devastate the region.
Police said evacuations were ordered Saturday morning for areas in northeastern Santa Rosa, a city of about 175,000 people roughly 50 miles northwest of San Francisco.
A large part of the city was evacuated earlier when wildfires began tearing through Northern California on October 8. Since then, at least 39 people have died, including 22 in Sonoma County, where Santa Rosa is located.
The exact number of new evacuations wasn’t immediately available, but California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Amy Head said several thousand people in that part of Santa Rosa are being told to leave their homes.
The blaze threatening Santa Rosa was a new fire that erupted Friday along state Highway 12 between two other wildfires that have been burning for days.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey told CNN Saturday that firefighters “have a handle” on the fire.
“The fire that you’re seeing today is in wildland areas,” he said. “It’s threatening the city but it’s not blowing through the city like we saw the other night. … There’s no cause for alarm but there is cause for some vigilance and preparedness.”
Several thousand people were evacuated when winds picked up Friday night, he said. But the winds had dissipated by Saturday.
“It’s a difficult situation,” he said. “It’s not one for folks in Santa Rosa to be alarmed right now.”
Fires ravaged parts of Santa Rosa earlier this week, reducing neighborhoods to ash and twisted metal.
The wind-driven fires have been fast and ruthless, shifting without much notice and destroying thousands of structures. They spread so fast on the first night, many residents and first responders were caught off guard.
The outbreak of wildfires has become one of the deadliest in the state history, according to Cal Fire. More than 200 people have been reported missing since the fires began.
Deputies dodge flames
Newly released body camera footage shows a Sonoma County deputy racing to help residents flee the fire on the first night, surrounded by flying embers.
“Sir, you gotta go,” the deputy shouts.
The deputy drives through neighborhoods with trees engulfed in flames as clouds of hot ash hit the windshield of his patrol car.
“I gotta get out of here,” the deputy says. “I’m in a bad spot.”
The deputy was among 15 law enforcement officers going door-to-door in Sonoma County urging people to evacuate Sunday and Monday, KPIX reported.
“The video really tells the story of how dangerous and how difficult the event was,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said Friday. “It is not over. Stay away from the houses and understand the severity of what this fire can do.”
Grim stories have emerged of desperate attempts to save people.
Many of the dead were so badly burned, their bodies were reduced to ash and bones. In some cases, authorities have used dental records, fingerprints, tattoos and serial numbers on hip implants to identify victims.
“We’ve been forced to work that direction because we may not have enough information to identify people because of the … severity of the burn,” Giordano said Thursday.
A firefighting force of more than 10,000 has made progress battling the blazes, but strong winds Saturday could create new problems.
“We are very concerned about what can potentially happen over the weekend,” the National Weather Service said.
Forecasters said winds of 30 to 40 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph, could challenge the firefighters’ gains.
The 50,000-plus acre Atlas fire in Napa and Solano counties was 45% contained Saturday morning — up from 3% two days earlier. The 46,000-plus acre Nuns fire in Sonoma County was 10% contained.
The 35,000-acre Tubbs fire in Napa and Sonoma counties was 44% under control. The 34,000-acre Redwood and Potter fires in Mendocino County were 20% contained.
At least 16 wildfires have burned more than 214,000 acres throughout California, and if any new fires start, officials said they can spread rapidly. Already, about 100,000 people have been evacuated from the fires, which have destroyed an estimated 5,700 structures.
Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris toured areas in northern California hit by fires on Saturday.
At a news conference, Brown called the fires one of the greatest tragedies ever faced by Californians. Feinstein promised to seek additional funding for people affected by the fires.
Brown also announced the White House approved California’s request for aid to residents of Butte, Lake, Mendocino and Yuba counties who suffered losses. The same aid was made available Friday to residents of Napa and Sonoma counties.
The state also secured funding to help Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Solano, Sonoma and Yuba counties remove debris and take emergency protective measures, Brown said in a statement.
Searching through rubble
Cadaver dogs and searchers have been going through what was left of a mobile home park in Santa Rosa, where 2,800 residences were destroyed earlier this week.
“We start with a bedroom because this fire occurred at night; we think a lot of people were in their bedrooms,” Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Spencer Crum told KOVR in Sacramento.
Crews inspected the debris, combing through wheelchairs, mattresses and pieces of metal trying to identify bodies.
“The searchers have a hard time. … I mean, we’re all humans. … It’s hard to come over here day after day after day,” Crum said.
Woman dies while hiding in swimming pool
A couple stayed in the pool of their Santa Rosa hilltop rental house for hours as the fire raged around them. Once the fires finally passed, Armando Berriz climbed out but his wife, Carmen, didn’t make it.
The couple had been celebrating their birthdays by the pool, playing games and swapping stories with relatives. When the flames surrounded the house at night, they took a car and tried to leave, but a tree fell, blocking the road.
When they couldn’t go any farther, they exited the vehicle and made their way back up the ridge to the house. They jumped into the pool to escape the heat.
“It wasn’t until close to dawn that my mom’s breath didn’t have the stamina to make it any more,” their daughter, Monica Ocon, told CNN.