Death toll rises to 35 as firefighters face strong winds Saturday in historic Northern California blazes

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Fire officials said Saturday that wind gusts up to 45 mph could further spread the massive blazes across Northern California that have been ravaging the region for almost a week.

Saturday’s winds are forecast to be similar to those that stoked the first flames Sunday night, which have mushroomed to more than 15 fires that have scorched 220,000 acres, destroyed an estimated 5,700 structures and caused at least 35 deaths.

Firefighters throughout the region are facing red flag warnings of 10- to 20-mph winds, with gusts up to 40 to 45 mph on Saturday, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Jaime Williams. The wildfires have charred more than 220,000 acres across Northern California.

The winds and low humidity “will challenge the firefighting efforts,” she said. “When you have these winds, it helps contribute to the spread and the intensity of the fire”

Nineteen people have died from the Tubbs fire in Sonoma County, eight in Mendocino County, four in Yuba County and four in Napa County.

Napa County officials identified two new victims of the Atlas fire as George Cheney, 89, and Edward Stone, 79. The two men owned a house in the 2300 block of Atlas Peak Road, where officials found their bodies Thursday, county spokeswoman Molly Rattigan said.

The Atlas fire had scorched 50,383 acres and was 45% contained as of Saturday morning.

One of the wettest winters on record, followed by the hottest summer on record, has created possibly the worst potential for fire in Napa County that the state has seen, a Cal Fire spokesman said Saturday.

Experts use a scientific formula to determine the potential of a fire, called the energy release component, said Cal Fire spokesman Mike Smith. On Saturday, that potential was the worst “in recorded history,” Smith said.

Crews have not seen this amount of fuel this dry in the path of a fire in at least 26 years, he said.

“Today is going to be a much different day than you’ve experienced unless you were here” from the beginning, Tom Wright of the National Weather Service told fire crews in Napa at a Saturday morning briefing. “It’s a really critical day.”

The Atlas fire saw 35 mph winds over ridge tops Friday night, blowing to the south and southwest.

The Atlas fire is continuing a slow march north toward Lake Berryessa, Smith said. The fire spread slightly along its southern and northwestern edges overnight, officials said Saturday morning. The strongest containment lines have been built around the southern and western faces of the fire, closest to the city of Napa.

But Napa County officials expressed optimism at a Saturday morning news conference, saying they were confident that the Atlas fire would remain under control. Around 9 a.m., as supervisor Belia Ramos spoke, winds were light and no new evacuations were expected.

No one was going to be allowed into the evacuation areas Saturday, officials said, because Caltrans was spending the day trying to restore the roads.

The National Guard has been called in to help the California Highway Patrol block the roads, as Caltrans crews in the hills work to remove rocks, mud, burned trees, fallen branches and downed power lines, CHP Capt. Chris Childs said.

Locals have been urged to avoid trying to help the cleanup. The county public health director declared a local emergency in order to bring in more resources to remove toxic ash and burnt remnants of homes and cars.

Of 224 people unaccounted for in Napa County, 146 have been found safe, four have been identified as dead and 74 remain missing, Rattigan said.

But the combination of high winds and high temperatures raises the potential for burn areas to expand quickly, officials said.

During a night of strong winds, the 46,000-acre Nuns fire in Sonoma County grew by at least 300 acres, threatening the outskirts of the city of Sonoma and the Oakmont neighborhood in Santa Rosa. It was 10% contained as of Saturday morning.

A blaze ignited when a downed power line touched a tree branch, rapidly growing into a 300-acre blaze on the southwest corner of the Nuns fire, east of Highway 12, Cal Fire officials told firefighters at a morning briefing.

“That’s what a little wind can do,” Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said in an interview. “It’s still very volatile.”

Officials issued new evacuation orders before 5 a.m. Saturday for a handful of homes on the northeastern edge of the city of Sonoma.

The Nuns fire also grew to the north, reaching toward Oakmont and into Trione-Annadel State Park. The size of that growth hadn’t been determined, McLean said. Evacuation orders are in place for homes north and south of Highway 12 in that area.

Crews continued to gain ground against the 35,270-acre Tubbs fire, which is 44% contained. The nearly 11,000-acre Pocket fire, east of Geyserville, is 5% contained.

A new 100-acre fire also erupted in Lake County on Highway 20, about five miles east of Clearlake.

Firefighters will continue to face gusts of up to 40 mph along ridges at the Nuns fire and the Pocket fire until 11 a.m. Saturday, Cal Fire meteorologist Jimmy Tager said. Then winds will begin to die down to about 5 mph, continuing into the evening.

In Mendocino County, the 34,000-acre Redwood fire was 20% contained as of Saturday morning.

Taken together, the death toll from the wildfires in wine country has exceeded that of the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which totaled 25. The Cedar fire, which swept through San Diego County in 2003, killed 15 people and destroyed more than 2,800 structures.

Officials expect the death toll to rise as search efforts continue in neighborhoods from Santa Rosa to the hills of Napa County.

Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris plan to visit affected areas of Sonoma County on Saturday. Brown has declared a state of emergency for Solano, Napa, Sonoma, Yuba, Butte, Lake, Mendocino and Orange counties. The Canyon 2 fire in Anaheim Hills was 70% contained as of Saturday morning.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is conducting damage assessments, providing aid to local agencies and offering federal funding to residents affected by the fire, the agency announced Saturday.

Despite the visits, there’s often little politicians can do when wildfires strike besides comfort people who lost their homes and monitor emergency efforts to make sure they’re getting the help they need. But Assemblyman Jim Wood has another job.

“Most of my work is in the morgue at this point,” he said.

A Democrat from Healdsburg, Wood also is a dentist who is helping law enforcement identify victims of the deadly fires in Northern California.

Wood represents an enormous, mostly rural district stretching from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border in the north. There aren’t many people in the country with his skills and experience. So when the latest fires started, he said, “I knew at some point I would be called.”

It’s the kind of work he’s done with sheriff’s offices in counties like Mendocino and Sonoma for years.

Sometimes bodies are recovered mostly intact. Other times, there are only bone fragments.

It’s slow work, and getting the right dental records to identify the remains can be difficult.

“It’s a process that will take awhile,” Wood said.

At a time when distraught families are desperate for information about missing loved ones, Wood said he is grateful there’s something he can do to help those families.

“There’s times we’re all standing around wondering what to do,” he said. The dental work, Wood said, “gives me a sense of purpose.”

Nelson reported from Santa Rosa, Serna from Napa County and Kohli from Los Angeles. Times reporters Paige St. John and Chris Megerian also contributed to this report.

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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UPDATES:

11:20 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Napa County officials and Assemblyman Jim Wood.

10:35 a.m.: This article was updated with more information about Napa County.

10 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the Atlas fire, Sen. Kamala Harris’ plans to visit Sonoma County and FEMA’s response.

This article was originally published at 8:50 a.m.



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