Weather and Natural Disasters

California's wine country wildfires near containment even as structure loss grows

Key Points
  • The number of structures lost in California's wine country wildfires jumped to 8,400, but many of the latest blazes were listed as at least 90 percent contained Monday.
  • Cal Fire said the total number of homes and structures lost could continue to climb as they get into additional areas to assess damage.
  • The cause of the wildfires remains under investigation, Cal Fire said Monday.
  • The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office said Monday an arson suspect previously arrested remains in custody but emphasized he's "not a suspect in these wine country fires."
A firestorm that began in Napa Valley's Calistoga destroys more than 1,000 homes and businesses in just the northwestern Coffey Park neighborhood as viewed in this aerial photo taken on October 12, 2017, in Santa Rosa, California. State officials are calling the Tubbs Fire the most destructive wildfire in history.
George Rose | Getty Images

The number of structures destroyed by the 245,000-acre Northern California wildfires climbed to 8,400 and authorities warned Monday the total could continue to go up as crews assess damage in scorched areas.

"The numbers are going to continue to increase," said Robert Foxworthy, a spokesman for Cal Fire. "The reason the numbers are increasing is because our damage assessment teams are getting into the areas and finally getting an accurate count."

Cal Fire said Friday there were 7,700 structures destroyed, so Monday's increase to 8,400 represented a significant jump and includes homes as well as other structures. There remain five large fires burning in the Northern Bay region of the state, although many were at least 90 percent contained as of Monday morning.

The wildfires in the state's wine country started Oct. 8 and have claimed at least 42 fatalities, with 23 of those from Sonoma County. There were 21 people still missing in Sonoma County as of Monday morning, said Misti Harris, a spokesperson for the county sheriff's office.

The investigation into the cause of the fires is still ongoing, and Foxworthy said it could still "be weeks" before the probe is complete and details are released.

Last week, Moody's estimated the insured losses for property and casualty insurers from the Northern California blazes "will be among the costliest wildfires on record for U.S." P&C insurers were already hit by high third-quarter catastrophe losses from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the Mexico earthquakes.

The credit ratings firm estimates the losses will total "$4.6 billion or higher," noting that its estimate was based on Cal Fire's earlier 5,700 structures figure.

Moody's also issued a separate report Monday saying the Northern California wildfire disaster is "unlikely to have a lasting material credit impact on affected municipal issuers." Preliminary insurance loss claims so far in the fires are about $1 billion, the state revealed last week.

Meantime, the Sonoma County Sheriff's spokesperson said Jesus Fabian Gonzales, who was arrested for starting a fire Oct. 15, is still in custody. But she emphasized he's "not a suspect in these wine country fires. His arson case is a small fire out of the Sonoma County."

About 5,000 firefighters remain on the California blazes, which include not only the wine country region fires but incidents in Santa Cruz County and parts of Southern California.

At an afternoon press conference Monday, state and federal officials responded to concerns about the toxic health hazards created by the wildfires.

The California Governor's Office of Emergency Services said crews will start physically removing toxic waste from burned homes and other sites this week in Sonoma County. The toxic waste clean-up process is expected to run into 2018 and will be supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, officials said.

The household hazardous debris targeted for removal includes everything from Freon, chemicals and batteries to electronic waste and asbestos fibers, which could become airborne. Soils also will be tested after the removal of debris, and toxic soil removed if needed, officials said.