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A day in the Northern California fire zone



SONOMA, Calif. — Fire crews were briefed and headed out to do battle. Survivors returned to the charred remains of their homes, picking through debris for anything recognizable. And families clung to the hope that missing loved ones were still alive.

As the sun rose thick and orange Friday in Northern California, there was heartbreaking routine to the ongoing wildfires catastrophe.

Stories of some who lived through the inferno by standing in backyard swimming pools this week spread. In the town of Sonoma, evacuation orders began days ago, but a few residents still were trickling out. As they left, some opened their gates and tacked up handwritten signs: “POOL IN BACK,” just in case someone needed access.

Fire crews worked feverishly, setting back burns to save homes, dragging hoses, watching the wind for gusts or shifts. The air was thick with acrid smoke.

“It’s a balancing act between using water to put out some of this big stuff and to save your water in case that side goes,” said Kyle Hawkins, a firefighter who traveled from Southern California with his crew.

CalFire Battalion Chief Joe Buchmeier said local crews were resolute, driven by the fact that their own neighborhoods were burning. Already several firefighters, including Calistoga volunteer fireman Buddy Pochini and Mill Valley Fire Chief Tom Welch, have lost their homes.

“Making people rest has been harder than making people work on this,” Buchmeier said. “It’s been a battle to try to get people off the line, including myself.”

More help was arriving.

King County, Washington, sent three strike teams, 50 firefighters in 16 vehicles, for what they planned to be an 18-day deployment.

“These guys are trained in wildland fires, and this is what they love to do,” Eastside Fire and Rescue Chief Jeff Clark said. His men were part of the team who were making the 800 mile trip.

They’re joining a force of thousands from as far as Victoria, Australia, who are fighting the flames.

At the decimated Journey’s End mobile home park in Santa Rosa, even shattering discoveries were becoming the norm.

“It is very tedious work,” said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Thompson after officers recovered bone fragments Friday morning.

Dozens of search-and-rescue personnel were on site, grimly searching for residents who didn’t make it out before fire swept through. A crew of men and women in white suits stood by to receive remains. Thompson said officials believed two or three more bodies would be recovered, but hours later when the convoy pulled out, led by three National Guard Humvees, officials declined to say whether any other remains had been found.

Behind the scenes, local leaders tried to facilitate school closures, emergency housing and other logistics. Midmorning, state Assemblyman Jared Huffman’s office announced in English and Spanish that federal law enforcement agents were suspending immigration enforcement in evacuation sites and assistance centers.

“My message to everyone in the North Coast and North Bay community, no matter their immigration status: stay safe, vigilant, and continue to follow all public safety warnings,” he said.

Oakville Grocery, a popular gourmet picnic stop for Napa Valley tourists, closed early Friday afternoon as flames approached.

“The fire is getting closer,” manager Leo Ponce said, “so we’re shutting down for now.”

They had opened as usual at 7:30 a.m. with a crew of “whoever could come in,” Ponce said.

He said that most of the customers were emergency crews, who the shop is feeding for free.

But the occasional carload of tourists also stopped by, he said.

“There are some who are barely aware of the fires,” he said. “They’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ ”


AP reporters Paul Elias, John Mone and Brian Skoloff contributed to this story from Northern California wildfire sites.

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