'Hell on Earth': California fire toll rises to 38

By AFP/Frankie Taggart   October 14, 2017 | 05:50 pm PT
'Hell on Earth': California fire toll rises to 38
A firefighting helicopter drops water to defend a vineyard from an approaching wildfire in Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 14, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Jim Urquhart
'These fires have been extremely destructive, with 5,700 structures estimated to have been destroyed.'

The death toll from California's raging wildfires rose to 38 on Saturday, with more than 10,000 firefighters battling 16 large blazes and 100,000 people evacuated, the state's fire service said.

Around 335 square miles (864 square kilometers) of residential neighborhoods, forests and other property have been burned since Sunday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

"These fires have been extremely destructive, with 5,700 structures estimated to have been destroyed," the service said in a statement.

Cal Fire later announced on its Twitter account that the death toll had risen from 35 in the morning to 38, with 20 of the fatalities occurring in Sonoma County alone, where more than 200 people are still missing.

Pre-dawn winds in Santa Rosa have complicated the effort, pushing a blaze known as the Nuns Fire in two separate directions and forcing thousands to evacuate their homes near Oakmont and northeast of the city of Sonoma, Cal Fire said.

Numerous churches across the region -- in Santa Rosa, Napa, Sonoma, Petaluma and Novato -- were housing victims of the wildfires and serving as resting places for firefighters, according to the Sacramento Bee newspaper.

California Governor Jerry Brown announced the White House had approved a request for direct aid for families in four counties, adding to emergency funds promised to the devastated winemaking areas of Napa and Sonoma.

'The horror' 

Brown and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris met community leaders and emergency management officials in Santa Rosa later Saturday, with nine counties still under a state of emergency.

"Nothing has been this bad that I've ever seen in this state," Brown was quoted as saying by the Bee.

"The devastation, the horror, the displacement, is truly something that none of us will ever forget."

Firefighters working 24 hours on, 24 hours off, have come in from around the western United States and even as far as the Carolinas to provide fresh legs for the battle.

In Redwood Valley, a small town around 70 miles north of the Sonoma County fires that threatened world-renowned wineries, officials have been struggling with the gruesome task of naming victims.

At least nine people were killed late Sunday by a wildfire that "swept through the area so fast it engulfed moving cars," the Bee reported, but several remain unidentified.

The settlement's 2,300 residents have been begging for information about missing friends and relatives as rescuers scour the charred remains of dozens of homes.

'Hell on Earth' 

"This is hell on earth," Sheriff Tom Allman told the newspaper as he confirmed the ninth death, an 86-year-old widow found in the ashes of her Redwood Valley house.

"This is such an all encompassing tragedy -- you lose a 14-year-old boy whose grandfather was a friend of mine, an elderly woman and her caretaker, a grandma and grandpa who died together."

The last week has been the deadliest for wildfires in California's history, according to officials.

The Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles County in 1933 killed at least 29 people, and 25 people died in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said Friday his department was continuing to track down people reported missing by family or friends.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department had received 1,308 missing persons reports so far and 1,052 people have been located, Giordano said.

Evacuation orders were in place for several towns in Napa and Sonoma, where hundreds of people have already lost their homes to the fast-moving infernos.

Many residents took to social media to berate President Donald Trump for his silence over the tragedy on his Twitter account.

Trump's tweets and retweets on Saturday were largely limited limited to observations on health care and his son Eric's upcoming appearance on Fox News, with nothing about California.

"Still no comments from Trump about devastating fires in California & the lives lost. Is it 'cause millions of CA voted for Hillary? How petty," read one tweet, echoing much of the criticism.

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