As walls of flames and thick plumes of smoke tore through Northern California on Saturday, grim stories emerged of desperate attempts to save people in one of the state’s deadliest wildfires.
The fire has killed 36 people, with many victims so badly burned, their bodies were reduced to ash and bones when rescuers found them. 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,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said Thursday.
Since the wind-driven fires began nearly a week ago, they have been fast and ruthless, shifting without much notice and destroying thousands of structures. The fires spread so fast in the middle of the night, many residents and first responders were caught off guard.
Deputies dodge flames
Newly released bodycam footage shows a Sonoma County deputy racing to help residents flee the fire, surrounded by flying embers.
“Sir, you gotta go,” the deputy shouts.
As the deputy is driving through neighborhoods with trees engulfed in flames, 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 residents to evacuate, CNN affiliate KPIX reported.
“The video really tells the story of how dangerous and how difficult the event was,” Giordano said Friday. “It is not over. Stay away from the houses and understand the severity of what this fire can do.”
This outbreak of wildfires has become one of the deadliest in the state history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
Thirty-six people have been killed and more than 200 have been reported missing since the wildfires began Sunday night.
Firefighters have made progress containing the flames, but strong winds Saturday could impact the deadly fires.
“We are very concerned about what can potentially happen over the weekend,” the National Weather Service said.
Forecasters say winds of 30-40 mph with gusts up to 50 mph could challenge the firefighters’ gains.
The 48,000-plus acre Atlas fire in Napa and Solano counties was 45% contained Friday night — up from 3% the day earlier. The 46,000-plus acre Nuns fire in Sonoma County — an amalgamation of three recently merged fires north and west of Glen Ellen — was 10% contained.
Wildfires have burned more than 221,000 acres throughout California and if any new fires start, officials said they can spread extremely rapidly.
Searching through the rubble
Cadaver dogs and searchers were going through what was left of a mobile home park in Santa Rosa, where 2,800 residences have been destroyed.
“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 spokesman Spencer Crum told CNN affiliate KOVR of Sacramento.
Crews inspected the debris, combing through wheelchairs, mattresses and pieces of metal trying to identify bodies amid the ashes.
“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.