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Calistoga: A town deserted, but still standing

Chris Megerian, Nina Agrawal, Sonali Kohli and Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

CALISTOGA, Calif. -- Calistoga was a ghost town Thursday. Thick smoke hung in the air like fog. Motorcycle cops in masks circled deserted streets. Everything downtown was closed -- the art galleries, the cafes, the wine-tasting rooms.

But the fact that this Napa County wine country town was still standing was seen as a victory after days of relentless destruction in Northern California from one of the worst firestorms in state history.

The entire town of Calistoga had been evacuated the previous day amid fire authorities' fears that 40-mph winds would drive the massive, deadly Tubbs fire toward Calistoga after it wiped out huge swaths of Santa Rosa.

The good news -- and weary fire crews clung to any good news -- was that, as of Thursday afternoon, the wind wasn't as bad as expected and crews were beginning to get a handle on some of the blazes.

But officials stressed that the conditions remain highly dangerous. Erratic winds are forecast for the weekend with the potential for the blazes to grow -- and new ones to start -- and the mass evacuations are expected to continue.

Firefighters did take advantage of a lull in the winds beginning Wednesday night, said Richard Cordova, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, allowing crews to establish 10 percent containment around the 34,270-acre blaze, which had killed at least 15 people in neighboring Sonoma County as of Thursday afternoon.

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But to the west in Santa Rosa, the full scope of the catastrophic fires was coming into grim focus. Stunned city officials said Thursday that an estimated 2,834 homes and 400,000 square feet of commercial space had been destroyed, mostly on Sunday night and Monday morning.

Even the city's newest fire station, along Fountaingrove Parkway, has been lost, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said that authorities were "moving into a recovery phase" in the burned-out neighborhoods of Santa Rosa and that this process will be long and painful.

"So far, in the recoveries, we have found bodies that were almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bone," he said, noting that in the latter cases, sometimes the only way to identify someone was through a medical device, such as a metal hip replacement with an identification number.

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