Easing winds give firefighters edge on deadly California conflagration

Image: Alex Ham, left, and his mother Lilly Ham search for a safe in Lilly’s home that was destroyed in wildfire that tore through Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

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By Salvador Rodriguez

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) – Firefighters gained some ground on the deadliest wildfires in California history on Sunday as lower winds and more manpower gave an edge on blazes that have killed at least 40 people and turned whole neighborhoods in the state’s wine country into ash.

Two of the three most destructive fires in Northern California were more than half contained and some residents who had fled the flames in hard-hit Sonoma County could be allowed to return home in the next 24 hours, officials said.

Residents could return only after police inspections showed their homes were safe. More than 5,700 structures have been destroyed by more than a dozen wildfires, which ignited a week ago and have since consumed an area larger than New York City. The city of Santa Rosa lost entire neighborhoods.

“Overall, things are feeling optimistic. We’re very cautious about that,” said Brad Gouvea, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection incident commander. “You’d never know it’s the middle of October in Sonoma County and have fire behavior like this.”

Some 11,000 firefighters supported by air tankers and helicopters are battling blazes that have consumed more than 217,000 acres (88,000 hectares).

Steve Crawford, a Cal Fire operations chief, said winds had fallen and helping drive flames away from populated areas. Additional equipment and manpower made available as other fires have died down also have helped.

“Before we were kind of chasing the fire. Now that we’re getting more personnel and the weather changes is really what’s helping us out,” he said.

Strong winds that had fanned flames had largely died down, but dry gusts would still whip up on Sunday with temperatures in the mid-80s Fahrenheit (about 29 Celsius), the National Weather Service said. No rain was forecast to fall on the fires until Wednesday or later.

Evacuation orders were lifted for the picturesque Napa Valley resort town of Calistoga, whose 5,000 residents had been forced out by authorities four days ago with fire within miles of downtown.


Some of the evacuees being housed at a Sonoma raceway hoped to return to their homes on Sunday.

Retiree Stephen Garner, 68, of Sonoma, has been at the campgrounds with his wife in the couple’s recreational vehicle. Garner said he hopes to return to his home soon, but he’s not sure if their home survived the fires.

“As far as we know our house is OK, but that’s the hard part – you don’t know,” he said.

If their house is damaged, Garner said he and his wife will likely remain in their RV and hope that their insurance covers wildfires.

In neighboring Mendocino County, the sheriff’s office said it would begin to allow people to return to some evacuated neighborhoods on Sunday. They warned of traffic delays at checkpoints, where returning residents would be able to pick up protective equipment and safety information.

But the fast-moving fires north of San Francisco remained a danger, with thousands more people ordered to leave their homes on Saturday. The number of missing in Sonoma County has fallen to 174 as more people have checked in with authorities, Sheriff Robert Giordano said at the news conference.

Firefighters gained control of two of the deadliest fires overnight in wine country’s Napa and Sonoma counties: The Tubbs fire was 60 percent contained and the Atlas fire 56 percent contained, Cal Fire said. But barely a third of the Redwood Valley fire, which alone is responsible for eight deaths in Mendocino County, was extinguished.

The 40 confirmed fatalities, including 22 in Sonoma County, make the fires California’s deadliest since recordkeeping began, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

About 75,000 people remain displaced.

At least a dozen Napa Valley and Sonoma County wineries were damaged or destroyed, throwing the state’s wine industry and related tourism into disarray.

Firefighters from Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah are helping battle the blazes. Cal Fire estimated the fires would be contained by Friday.

The year’s wildfire season is one of the worst in U.S. history, with nearly 8.6 million acres (3.4 million hectares) burned as of Oct. 13, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The worst on record for the same period in a year was 9.3 million acres in 2015.

(Additional reporting by Heather Somerville in Santa Rosa, Ian Simpson in Washington and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Ian Simpson and Scott Malone; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Mary Milliken)

Copyright 2017 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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