Officials are making grim discoveries — bodies burnt beyond recognition — as they search the blackened ruins left by wildfires scorching parts of Northern California.
“Some of them are merely ashes and bones,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said at a Thursday press conference. “And we may never get truly confirmative identification on ashes. When you’re cremated, you can’t get an ID.”
Thirty-one people have been killed since the wildfires began Sunday night, making this outbreak one of the deadliest in state history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
In Sonoma County, authorities had to turn to 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 fire and the severity of the burn,” Giordano said.
Since Sunday, the deadly fires have leveled communities and thousands of homes, forced evacuations and produced unhealthy air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We’re not even close to being out of this emergency,” Mark Ghilarducci, the director of California’s Office of Emergency Services, said Thursday afternoon.
The biggest fires in Northern California were far from contained.
The 43,000-plus acre Atlas fire in Napa and Solano counties was 7% contained, and the 34,000-acre Tubbs fire in Napa and Sonoma counties was 10% under control. The 32,000-acre Mendocino-Lake Complex fire was 10% contained.
At least 400 people are reported missing in Sonoma County alone, where a fire wiped out thousands of homes in Santa Rosa, a city of about 175,000 people.
Deputies are having to wait for houses to cool before they can enter to look for the missing, said Giordano, the sheriff.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office identified 10 victims Thursday, and most of them were over 70. The youngest was 57, and the oldest was 95.
Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties have been among the hardest hit by the fires. Nearly 20% of the population in those counties is over 65, according to US Census Bureau data.