Death toll rises to 42 in California wildfires

by Reuters
Wednesday, 18 October 2017 23:11 GMT

Search-and-rescue teams comb through the Coffey Park area looking for dozens of people still missing in the state's deadliest wildfires, in Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Christie

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Thousands of survivors, forced to flee the flames with little warning, remained displaced

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES, Oct 18 (Reuters) - The death toll from more than a dozen major wildfires still burning across Northern California's celebrated wine country rose to 42 on Wednesday, after search and rescue teams picking through burned out neighborhoods found another victim.

Few details were available on the latest person confirmed to have died in the so-called North Bay fires, already the deadliest in California history.

Law enforcement officials said only that the individual had died in the Fountain Grove section of Santa Rosa, a city of about 175,000 people north of San Francisco that has seen nearly 5 percent of its homes destroyed.

Since erupting on Oct. 8 and 9, the fires have blackened more than 245,000 acres, (86,200 hectares), an area more than five times the size of Washington, D.C., and destroyed nearly 5,000 homes along with wineries and commercial buildings.

About 60 people remain missing or unaccounted for in Sonoma and Napa counties. Most of the over 2,000 people listed in missing-persons reports have turned up safe, including evacuees who failed to alert authorities after fleeing their homes.

Thousands of survivors, forced to flee the flames with little warning, remained displaced. Many would return to find nothing left, forcing them to make hasty plans for shelter.

Fire officials say that while 13 major blazes were still burning as of Wednesday, the flames were largely contained and no longer considered a threat to homes or communities.

"We have stopped the forward progress and movement of all these fires, we have line around them," Brett Gouvea, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection deputy chief, told reporters at an afternoon press conference.

A Santa Rosa couple whose house was destroyed sued Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) on Tuesday, claiming the utility failed to take preventative measures in the face of dangerous drought conditions. "PG&E failed to properly maintain and to repair power lines while also negligently failing to properly trim, prune and maintain vegetation near their electrical equipment," attorneys for Wayne and Jennifer Harvell said in a written statement.

The couple seeks compensation for personal property losses and "emotional harm." in their lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court.

Representatives for PG&E said that the utility was focused on supporting firefighting efforts and restoring power

"We aren't going to speculate about any of the causes of the fires and will cooperate with the reviews by any relevant regulator or agency," spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said.

Authorities say they were still investigating to determine a cause of each of the major fires.

About 30 vintners sustained some fire damage to wine-making facilities, vineyards, tasting rooms or other assets, according to the industry group Napa Valley Vintners.

About 90 percent of Napa's grape harvest had been picked and escaped exposure to smoke that could have tainted the fruit.

Still, the toll taken on the region has thrown the wine industry into disarray. The group's spokeswoman, Patsy McGaughy, said the 2017 Napa vintage would likely be smaller than previously expected.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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