Search-and-rescue teams, some with cadaver dogs, started looking for bodies Thursday in parts of California wine country devastated by wildfires, an indication that more dead were almost sure to emerge from the charred ruins of communities consumed by the flames.
At least 29 people have died and at least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the blazes, which could become the deadliest and most destructive in California history.
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said officials were still investigating hundreds of reports of missing people and that recovery teams would soon begin conducting 'targeted searches' for specific residents at their last known addresses.
An exterior window frames a home destroyed by fires in Santa Rosa, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 that have already killed at least 29
Firefighters prepare to put out a hot spot from a wildfire near Calistoga, as communities in wildfire-prone Northern California brace for the worst
Cal Fire forester Kim Sone is framed by a fallen basketball hoop as she inspects damage at homes destroyed by wildfires in Santa Rosa, California
Cal Fire forester Kim Sone inspects damage at homes destroyed by wildfires in Santa Rosa, California, some of the worst ever recorded
Photograph capturing the some of the devastation left by massive wildfires that have erupted throughout northern California
Massive wildfires sweeping through California have destroyed thousands of homes and communities like the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California
Gusting winds and dry air forecast for Thursday could drive the next wave of devastating wildfires that are already well on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history
Officials say that 22 fires spanning more than 300 square miles - an area equivalent to the size of New York City- are still raging
A helicopter draws water from a pond to help put out a fire near Napa, California as officials place containment of the blazes at 10 per cent
A property destroyed by wildfires is seen along Soda Canyon Road near Napa. Wildfires in California
'We have found bodies almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones,' the sheriff said.
Some remains have been identified using medical devices that turned up in the scorched heaps that were once homes. Metal implants, such as artificial hips, have ID numbers that helped identify the person, he said.
When the devastating wildfires first erupted Sunday, Sonoma County officials decided not to to send out a mass alert warning residents of the danger, saying they wanted to avoid a mass panic in the area, according to SFgate.com.
Officials reasoned that if people in the area alarmed by the natural disaster began fleeing in droves, it would have hindered the efforts of first responders to tackle the blaze.
Many of the cell phone towers in the area were initially destroyed by the blaze, making it difficult to send warnings to people, so it's unclear how emergency alerts would have affected residents' responses.
The warning, called a Wireless Emergency Alert, are only able to reach phones in large geographic areas, according to Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Coordinator Zachary Hamill, who made the decision not to send the WEA.
'If I had done the Wireless Emergency Alert I would have been notifying Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Sonoma — all of the cities and unincorporated areas in the county,' Hamill said. 'And I didn't need to do that, I needed to focus on who specifically needed' help.
'Providing mass information to people not affected could have caused mass traffic backups, which could have impacted emergency service providers and delayed emergency response,' Jennifer Larocque, a spokeswoman for Sonoma County, told SFgate.
Meanwhile, winds up to 45 mph (72 kph) were expected Thursday in areas north of San Francisco, and stronger, more erratic gusts were forecast for Friday. Those conditions could erase modest gains made by firefighters.
'We are not out of this emergency. We are not even close to being out of this emergency,' Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci told a news conference Thursday.
More than 8,000 firefighters were battling the blazes, and more manpower and equipment was pouring in from across the country and from as far as Australia and Canada, officials said.
The ferocious fires that started Sunday leveled entire neighborhoods in parts of Sonoma and Napa counties. In anticipation of the next round of flames, entire cities evacuated, leaving their streets empty, the only motion coming from ashes falling like snowflakes.
A note and face mask are seen on a statue in a downtown park filled with smoke from a wildfire in Sonoma, California
Napa County Sheriff deputies escort people across a barricade to be driven by police officers to pick up important medications or feed animals at their homes effected by the Atlas Fire
Thousands of homes have burned and more than two dozen people have been confirmed dead so far as numerous wildfires continue to spread in eight Northern California counties
Gusting winds and dry air forecast for Thursday, Oct. 12, could drive the next wave of devastating wildfires that are already well on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history
Fire officials are investigating whether downed power lines or other utility failures could have sparked the fires. It's unclear if downed lines and live wires resulted from the fires or started them, said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
An estimated 25,000 people have been driven from their homes by the flames, including the entire community of Calistoga, a historic resort town known for wine tastings and hot springs with a population of 5,300. A few residents left behind cookies for firefighters with signs reading, 'Please save our home!'
As the wildfires raged for a fourth day, they continued to grow in size. A total count of 22 fires on Wednesday grew to 21 on Thursday because two large fires had merged together, said state Fire Chief Ken Pimlott.
Many burned out of control. The flames spanned more than 300 square miles (777 square kilometers), an area equivalent to the size of New York City's five boroughs.
Fire crews reported some progress on a blaze burning in Napa and Sonoma Counties, the heart of wine country, bringing containment to 10 percent.
The ash rained down on Sonoma Valley, covering windshields, as winds picked up. Countless emergency vehicles hurried toward the flames, sirens blaring, as evacuees sped away after jamming possessions into their cars and filling their gas tanks.
Helicopters and air tankers assisted thousands of firefighters who were trying to beat back the flames. Until now, the efforts have focused lives and safety rather than extinguishing the blazes, partly because the flames were shifting with the wind and targeting communities without warning.
Smoke generated by wildfires fills the air in a vineyard near Napa, California as firefighters continue to battle some of the worst fires ever recorded
A wildfire burns along the Highway 29 near Calistoga, Calif. Officials say progress is being made in some of the largest wildfires burning in Northern California but that the death toll is almost sure to surge
A firefighter gestures to his colleagues as he walks through thick smoke from a wildfire Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, near Calistoga, Calif.
Two firefighters look on as think smoke from a wildfire fills the air along the Highway 29 in northern California
Smoke and haze from wildfires have even reached places like San Francisco, affecting the skyline over the northern California city
Hundreds of people are still missing in massive wildfires which have swept through California killing at least 29 people and damaging thousands of homes, businesses and other buildings