California fires: 32 dead as 'ashes and bones' found in ruins

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More than a dozen wildfires raged across Northern California on Tuesday, October 10, 2017 morning, with the biggest ones scorching the state's famous wine country, killing several people and burning more than 1,500 homes and businesses. (AP Photo) More than a dozen wildfires raged across Northern California on Tuesday, October 10, 2017 morning, with the biggest ones scorching the state's famous wine country, killing several people and burning more than 1,500 homes and businesses. (AP Photo)

(CNN) -- Reinforcements from other regions are helping firefighters contain more of the largest wildfires devastating Northern California, though strong winds expected over the weekend could challenge those gains, a fire chief said Friday.

Meanwhile, officials are making grim discoveries -- bodies burnt beyond recognition -- as they search blackened ruins.

"Some of them are merely ashes and bones," Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said at a Thursday news conference. "And we may never get truly confirmative identification on ashes. When you're cremated, you can't get an ID."

Thirty-two 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 (Cal Fire).

Firefighters are making progress on some of the bigger fires, Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said Friday, thanks in large part to the gumption of those who've been on the lines for days and the reinforcements who are relieving them.

"It's like pulling teeth to get law enforcement and firefighters to disengage from what they're doing out there -- they're truly passionate about what they're doing to help the public. But the reinforcements are coming in, and that's why you're seeing the progress that we're making," Biermann said.

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 ... severity of the burn," Giordano said.

Since Sunday, the deadly fires have consumed thousands of homes and forced evacuations in Northern California's wine country and produced unhealthy air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Though progress has been made on the big fires, much more work is ahead.

The 48,000-plus acre Atlas fire in Napa and Solano counties was 27% contained Friday -- up from 3% the day earlier. The 44,000-acre Nuns fire in Sonoma County -- an amalgamation of three recently merged fires north and west of Glen Ellen -- was 5% contained.

The 34,000-acre Tubbs fire in Napa and Sonoma counties was 25% under control. The 34,000-acre Redwood and Potter fires in Mendocino County were 10% contained.

Latest developments

• Of the 32 people who were killed by the fires since Sunday night, 18 died in Sonoma County, officials said. Eight people have died in Mendocino County, at least four in Yuba County and two in Napa County, officials said.

• More than 2,800 residences in Santa Rosa have been destroyed by wildfires, Mayor Chris Coursey told reporters Thursday. The number of destroyed structures in the state exceeds 3,500, Cal Fire said.

• Wildfires have burned more than 221,000 acres throughout California; 17 wildfires remained Friday, Cal Fire said.

• Winds could be especially gusty Friday night through Saturday. Those conditions, joined with low humidity, could spread the flames drastically, the National Weather Service warns. "Very dangerous #fire conditions expected overnight (Friday) due to strong winds and ongoing fires. Please be prepared & aware!" the weather service tweeted.

How to help the victims of the California wildfires

• 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.

• About 34,000 utility customers are without electricity service -- and natural gas service to 47,000 customers has been shut off -- mostly in Sonoma and Napa counties, the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said Friday.

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 about 50 miles northwest of San Francisco.

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.

Pregnant woman flees on bike

Evacuees who escaped 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.

"Honestly, I've never in my life felt like I was going to die like that moment," Ruiz told CNN affiliate KPIX. "Not just me, but my girls and unborn baby."

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.

'Peanuts' 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 died in 2000.

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.

Exhausted firefighters

Sleep-deprived firefighters are working to contain the wildfires, even as some of their own homes have been hit.

Many have been working for days with little sleep -- 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."

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