Wildfire recovery crews grappling with dangerous conditions

Woman dies in pool escaping CA fire

The death toll is still rising from Northern California's massive wildfires. Forty-one people are confirmed dead and they range in age from 14 to 100. Among them is a driver whose truck overturned while delivering water to the fire lines. Wildfires raced across more than 213,000 acres – 332 square miles –destroying some 5,700 homes and businesses.  

Search and recovery crews are sifting through the debris in Santa Rosa, looking for victims and also hazardous materials that could make it dangerous for people to return, but there are many who can never return, reports CBS News correspondent Mireya Villarreal.

Carmen Berriz CBS News

"It was escape or die," said Monica Berriz.

Berriz and her family were in her friend's Santa Rosa home enjoying an annual vacation when they smelled smoke.

"And within a minute there were 30-foot flames on both sides of the house," she said.

It was after midnight. Monica's parents Carmen and Armando followed her in a convoy of cars. The firestorm made visibility so poor she couldn't see that her parents' car got stuck behind her, forcing the couple to flee on foot into a nearby pool.

"It was a miracle that my father survived it. I wish my mom had the stamina to make it just a little bit longer," Berriz said.

Armando suffered second-degree burns holding on to his wife of 55 years in the pool for at least five hours until her lungs gave out.

Carmen and Armando Berriz CBS News

"She passed so peacefully in his arms. And he was so pleased that it wasn't anything but peace," Berriz said.

Carmen Berriz is just one of more than 40 confirmed deaths from northern California's wildfires. Seventy-one-year-old Daniel Southard had sent a text message to his son who lost his mother at the age of two just before the fires broke out. Leroy and Donna Halbur had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. At 14, Kai Shepard was among the wildfire's youngest victims. His family members are badly injured. Meanwhile, the search continues for dozens of people still missing.

"Maybe they ran out of the house and they died in a neighbor's house. So right now we're just trying to give a real good, thorough sweeping before you allow the general public back in," said Sonoma County sheriff Spencer Crum.

Authorities say more than 100 people are still unaccounted for. Search and recovery crews in Santa Rosa are being especially cautious as there is so much dangerous debris to sift through that officials are concerned about when and where they use their cadaver dogs, fearing they too could get hurt.