As they enter homes to search for the missing, they’re finding bodies burnt beyond recognition.
“Some of them are merely ashes and bones,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano during a Thursday press conference. “And we may never get truly confirmative identification on ashes. When you’re cremated, you can’t get an ID.”
So far, 31 people have been killed, making this one of the deadliest wildfire outbreaks in state history, according to Cal Fire. The death toll has been increasing daily since the fires began Sunday.
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 as of Thursday.
The 40,000-plus acre Atlas Fire in Napa and Solano counties was just 3% contained and the 34,000-acre Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma was 10% under control. The 32,000-acre Mendocino-Lake Complex fire was 5% contained.
• Of the 31 people who have died since Sunday night, 17 were killed in Sonoma County, officials said. Eight people have died in Mendocino County, and at least four in Yuba County and two in Napa County, officials said.
• More than 2,800 residences in Santa Rosa, California, have been destroyed by wildfires, Mayor Chris Coursey told reporters on Thursday.
• Wildfires have burned more than 191,000 acres throughout California.
• Almost 8,000 firefighters are trying to contain the blazes, officials said Thursday. They’re using 820 firetrucks — at least 170 from out of state — 73 helicopters and more than 30 planes.
Many of the fire victims are elderly
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 county sheriff.
In Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, which have been hardest hit by the fires, nearly 20% of the population is over the age of 65, according to census data.
Pregnant woman flees on bike
Evacuees who escaped the oncoming flames described harrowing ordeals.
Charity Ruiz, who is pregnant, had been in a car with her family trying to evacuate from their Santa Rosa neighborhood, but got stuck in a traffic jam.
Unable to wait any longer, Ruiz walked back and got her bike from her house and rode out of the neighborhood with her two girls in the toddler trailer.
“I can ride a bike, but I’m pregnant so it was hard,” she told the station. Ruiz had been scheduled to deliver her baby next week.
She and her kids made it out of harm’s way, but their home burned to the ground.
Peanut’s creator’s home lost to wildfire
The fires have been fast and ruthless, shifting without much notice and destroying at least 3,500 structures.
One of them is the Santa Rosa home of Charles Schulz, the creator of the comic strip “Peanuts.” Schulz had died in 2000 in his Santa Rosa home.
His widow, Jean, 78, evacuated from the home Monday shortly before the flames reduced it to rubble, his son Monte Schulz said. The fire destroyed precious reminders of the life his stepmother and his late father had built together, along with memorabilia, Schulz told CNN.
Many firefighters have been working for days with little rest — but supervisors are trying to pull them off duty to get rest as firefighters from out of state arrive.
“We are finding people on the line that have just been going to work and staying out there for day after day after day,” Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said Thursday. “We’re identifying them. We’re getting them in as soon as we can to get rest, especially now that we have more reinforcements coming.”
CNN’s Keith Allen, Dave Alsup, Darran Simon, Faith Karimi and Sonya Hamasaki contributed to this report.