As Crews Gain Ground, California Fire Victims Return Home

People were being allowed to go back home in areas no longer in harm's way, and the number of those under evacuation orders was down to 40,000 from nearly 100,000

What to Know

  • At least 40 people killed by fires burning across Northern California
  • Roughly 213,000 acres — nearly 333 square miles — burned statewide since firestorm ignited
  • 5,700 homes and businesses destroyed

With the winds dying down, fire crews gained ground as they battled the deadly wildfires that have devastated California wine country and other parts of the state over the past week, and thousands of people got the all-clear to return home.

While the danger from the deadliest, most destructive cluster of blazes in California history was far from over, the smoky skies started to clear in some places. People were being allowed to go back home in areas no longer in harm's way, and the number of those under evacuation orders was down from nearly 100,000 on Saturday to 40,000 Monday.

Many began to take the first steps toward rebuilding their lives.

"This is my home I'm going to come back without question," said Howard Lasker, 56, who returned Sunday with his daughter to view their torched house in Santa Rosa. "I have to rebuild. I want to rebuild."

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The blazes have wiped out some 5,700 structures and been blamed for at least 40 deaths — 22 in Sonoma County, eight in Mendocino County, six in Napa County and four in Yuba County. A contract firefighter was also killed Monday when the water tanker they were driving crashed in Napa County.

The death toll could climb as searchers dig through the ruins for people listed as missing. Hundreds were unaccounted for, though authorities said many of them are probably safe but haven't let anyone know.

In hard-hit Sonoma County, Sheriff Rob Giordano on Monday said 88 of the reported 1,863 missing persons remain outstanding. Many of those names were put on the list after people called from out of state to say they couldn't reach a friend or relative.

Authorities said they will not let people return home until it is safe and utilities are restored. Pacific Gas and Electric Company said it expects to restore power and gas to the area by late Monday.

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More than 213,000 acres — nearly 333 square miles — have burned across the Golden State since the firestorm ignited, Cal Fire reported Monday.

The Atlas Fire has burned 51,064 acres in Napa and Solano counties and is 68 percent contained; the Tubbs Fire has scorched 36,432 acres in Napa County and is 75 percent contained; the Nuns Fire, which includes the Partrick, Adobe, Norbbom, and Pressley fires, has burned 51,512 acres in Sonoma County and is 53 percent contained; the Pocket Fire has burned 12,430 acres in Sonoma County and is 45 percent contained; and the Oakmont Fire in Sonoma County has charred 875 acres and is 15 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

Farther north, firefighters appear to be gaining significant ground on blazes burning across Lake and Mendocino counties. The Sulphur Fire in Lake County has torched 2,207 acres and is 85 percent contained; the Long Fire that burned 100 acres in Lake County is 100 percent contained; and the Redwood Valley Fire in Mendocino County has charred 35,800 acres and is 50 percent contained. 

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Many evacuees grew increasingly impatient to go home — or at least find out whether their homes were spared. Others were reluctant to go back or to look for another place to live.

Juan Hernandez, who escaped with his family from his apartment Oct. 9 before it burned down, still had his car packed and ready to go in case the fires flared up again and threatened his sister's house, where they have been staying in Santa Rosa.

"Every day we keep hearing sirens at night, alarms," Hernandez said. "We're scared. When you see the fire close to your house, you're scared."

Tony Avina was forced to flee from his Calistoga neighborhood on Wednesday. His next few days were filled with nothing but anxiety.

"It was something that I tried to not think about, but it did come up in my mind a lot, and it was scary," he said.

Four days after evacuating, Avina and roughly 5,000 other Calistoga residents returned home. Ash littered Avina's neighborhood, but his home was still standing.

Dan Luhan and his girlfriend Valerie were not as fortunate. They returned to the Wikiup-Larkfield area of Santa Rosa only to find homes left in shambles, including Valerie's.

"They're all gone," Luhan said. "They look just like this house across the street, just leveled."

Amid the despair, Valerie found some hope.

"It was encouraging because there's some things left," she said. "There's some things to salvage. There's going to be some stuff to take away. So all is not lost, and that was our fear."

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At the Sonoma fairgrounds, evacuees watched the San Francisco 49ers play the Redskins on television, received treatment from a chiropractor and got free haircuts.

Michael Estrada, who owns a barber shop in neighboring Marin County but grew up in one of the Santa Rosa neighborhoods hit hard by the blazes, brought his combs, clippers and scissors and displayed his barbering license in case anyone doubted his credentials.

"I'm not saving lives," he said. "I'm just here to make somebody's day feel better, make them feel normal."

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Lois Krier, 86, said it was hard to sleep on a cot in the shelter with people snoring and dogs barking through the night.

She and her husband, William Krier, 89, were anxious to get home, but after being evacuated for a second time in a week Saturday, they didn't want to risk having to leave again.

"We're cautious," she said. "We want to be safe."

Governor Brown visited Santa Rosa Saturday morning for a tour of the areas affected by the wildfires, calling it one of the greatest tragedies that California has ever faced. Christie Smith reports.

Roughly 11,000 firefighters on Monday were still battling 14 large fires burning across a 100-mile swath of the state.

In the wooded mountains east of Santa Rosa, where a mandatory evacuation remained in place, a large plume of white smoke rose high in the sky as firefighters tried to prevent the fire from burning into a retirement community and advancing onto the floor of Sonoma Valley, known for its wineries.

Houses that had benefited from repeated helicopter water drops were still standing as smoke blew across surrounding ridges. A deer crossed the highway from a burned-out area and wandered into a vineyard not reached by the flames.

Those who were allowed back into gutted neighborhoods returned to assess the damage and, perhaps, see if anything was salvageable.

Fires have destroyed more than 3,500 homes and businesses, scorched in excess of 170,000 acres — or roughly 265 square miles — and forced at least 20,000 people to evacuate since Sunday.

Jack Daniels had recently completed a year-long remodel of his Napa house near the Silverado Country Club and watched it go up in flames last week as he, his wife, 7-year-old grandson and two pugs backed out of the driveway.

His neighbors, Charles Rippey, 100, and his wife, Sara, 98, were the oldest victims identified so far in the wildfires.

Daniels, 74, a wine importer and exporter, said he lost everything left behind, including his wife's jewelry and 3,000 bottles of wine in his cellar.

"It's heartbreaking," the 74-year-old said. "This was going to be our last house. I guess we've got one more move. But we're fortunate. We got away. Most things can be replaced. The bank didn't burn down."

The return home was emotional even for those whose properties were spared.

"When we came up to check on it, we were amazed it was here," said Tom Beckman, who credited his neighbor's two sheep with chomping vegetation surrounding his home and keeping the fires at bay.

"All the trivial things we have to work on — cleaning up, replacing the stuff in the fridge and freezer — that's nothing compared to my friends who lost their homes," Beckman said.

The smell of smoke remained thick in the air and spread to the San Francisco area, but skies were clearer in some places.

Although the weather was still hot and dry, the calmer winds and the possibility of rain later in the week should help crews tamp down the deadliest, most destructive cluster of blazes in California history.

"Any sort of moisture is welcome at this point," said Scott Rowe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "In terms of fire, the weather outlook is looking to be improving."

A fraction of an inch is predicted to fall late Thursday in Sonoma and Napa counties, though fire officials noted that if showers bring more wind than moisture, it could spell trouble for firefighters.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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