CALIFORNIA, U.S. - The death toll in the disastrous California wildfire great to 31 late on Thursday, even as weary fire crews began making progress against a firestorm.
The fire has been spreading dramatically over the last few days and rescuers are now conducting a grim search for bodies amid the ashes of burned communities.
In a press conference late on Thursday, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano told reporters that a 15th person was found dead in his county.
He said that search crews and cadaver dogs began sifting through debris for the first time on the day.
Later in the day, officials confirmed the discovery of four more bodies.
According to Sonoma County, Cal Fire and Yuba County officials, overall a total of 31 deaths have been reported, 15 in Sonoma County, eight in Mendocino County, four in Yuba County and two in Napa County.
At the briefing Giordano said that the searches could take hours, and identification will be difficult.
He said, “So far, in the recoveries, we have found bodies that were almost completely intact and bodies that were nothing more than ash and bone.”
He added that in the latter cases, sometimes the only way to identify someone is through a medical device, like an ID number with a metal hip replacement.
Giordano said, “We will do everything in our power to locate all the missing persons, and I promise you we will handle the remains with care and get them returned to their loved ones. It could be weeks or even months before all the bodies are identified.”
Meanwhile, state and local officials expressed optimism that milder-than-expected winds and additional firefighting crews from across California were allowing them to make progress against the fires.
Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tom Gossner said that hundreds of firefighters were battling the devastating Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa and added, “We need to hit this thing hard and get it done. It’s time to finish this thing.”
According to Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, as of Thursday, staff estimated 2,834 homes were destroyed in the city of Santa Rosa alone.
Coursey said that about 400,000 square feet of commercial space was burnt too.
Officials also added that the flames had destroyed the city’s newest fire station, on Fountaingrove Parkway.
Cal Fire spokeswoman Heather Williams has said that there is still concern for Calistoga and elsewhere.
Officials are expecting winds between 10 mph and 20 mph on Thursday night, and stronger seasonal winds over the weekend.
Meanwhile, the fire around Mt. St. Helena hopped Highway 29, which runs adjacent to the mountain north of evacuated Calistoga.
Amy Head, a Cal Fire spokeswoman said, "It's so thick [with vegetation], it's so steep. The fire is unpredictable. We don't want to get trapped on this mountain."
Further, crews have managed to start a containment line for the 43,000-acre Atlas fire.
Residents have been warned that they might have to evacuate eastern sections of town closest to the fire.