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Death toll rises to 41, firefighters gain control Northern California blazes

Updated: 
October 17, 2017 - 9:55am

Firefighters on Monday continued to gain control of the deadly wildfires that have ravaged Northern California’s wine country, as officials lifted multiple evacuation orders across the region.

In the last week, the fires have scorched more than 200,000 acres, destroyed or damaged more than 5,500 homes, displaced 100,000 people and killed at least 41.

Sunday appeared to be a turning point, as firefighters took advantage of winds that were weaker than expected to increase containment on the fires, even allowing some back into their homes. Still, more than 40,000 people are still evacuated and the death toll continues to rise.

The Nuns fire claimed its first identified victim, Cal Fire said Monday. “A private water tender driver assigned to the Nuns fire tragically died in a vehicle rollover on Oakville Grade in Napa County” Monday morning, Cal Fire said in a statement.

In Sonoma County, The 36,390-acre Tubbs fire is 70 percent contained; the 51,064-acre Atlas fire is 68 percent contained; and the 11,889-acre Pocket fire is 40 percent contained, aided by efforts by more than 4,000 firefighters from across California.

“The conditions have been pretty favorable, the winds have been less than expected,” Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Jones said Monday morning. Sunday night was the “second night in the row where we had some reasonably decent production,” he said.

Crews gained more of a toehold against the 48,627-acre Nuns fire, which is now 50 percent contained. But a smaller blaze adjacent to the Nuns fire that ignited Saturday near the Oakmont neighborhood of Santa Rosa continues to cause trouble.

Overnight, the 875-acre blaze jumped over bulldozed fire breaks, and merged with a corner of the Nuns fire burning near Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Cal Fire officials told firefighters at a morning briefing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. The fire, called the Oakmont branch, is 15 percent contained.

“We’ve got ahold of this horse, but it’s bucking us still in some areas,” incident commander Bret Gouvea said Monday morning.

Some residents in the Oakmont area have not left their homes, Santa Rosa fire chief Tony Gossner said. Local law enforcement will be moving house to house today, knocking on doors.

“We’re going to do our best to get people out who don’t want to come out,” Gossner said.

The area where the Oakmont branch is burning is relatively sparsely populated, but if the fire moves west, it could threaten more than 2,000 homes west of Los Alamos Road, Gossner said.

The Nuns fire, 50 percent contained on Monday morning after burning 48,627 acres, was also still a concern. Firefighters have been able to keep the flames from burning more structures in the city of Sonoma, Jones said, but evacuation orders are still in place for the city.

The Nuns fire is moving north, “spreading at a moderate rate. The fire is being driven by steep slopes and dry fuel,” according to a Cal Fire incident report.

Authorities dealing with the 36,390-acre Tubbs fire, which has leveled much of Santa Rosa, lifted evacuation orders on about 200 to 300 houses, including portions of the Larkfield and Wikiup neighborhoods just north of the community.

“Those were neighborhoods where the Tubbs fire came down to the backside,” Jones said. Families were allowed to return to unburned houses Sunday afternoon.

The Tubbs fire was 70 percent contained as of Monday morning.

Hours after police lifted evacuation orders for a small area of the Larkfield-Wikiup area, dozens of residents sped through the darkened streets to check their houses for damage, or to see what was left to salvage. For some, trying to return home was traumatic.

Police officers erected barricades across Carriage Lane and checked residents’ identification before allowing them to enter on foot. They hoped that barring cars from the area would discourage residents from spending the night in homes that still don’t have electricity.

Kimberly Flinn emerged from the darkness of Carriage Lane late Sunday night, her shaking hands illuminated by the flashing blue and red lights of a police car.

Flinn and her partner, Jaiden Campbell, had just returned from a tour of their house in Wikiup — their first visit since they evacuated Monday morning.

“It’s gone,” Flinn said, crying. Campbell grabbed her hand. “We knew it was gone, but we… it’s gone.”

Flinn and Campbell said that during the days they were out of the house, they saw a satellite photo of their street, showing every house obliterated. It still didn’t prepare them for the extent of the damage. One car was half melted. Little was left standing beyond the house’s major support beam.

In the wreckage in their front yard, Flinn found a white ceramic butterfly she had placed in a planter to commemorate a little boy who was killed in an accident. Butterflies, she said, were reminders that friends and family who have died are thinking of you.

The butterfly came out of the fire sooty but unscathed.

Napa County officials allowed residents back into the town of Calistoga on Sunday afternoon, after clearing everyone out last week in fear that flames would hit the city.

“The most active portion of the (Tubbs) fire is still the northeastern portion around Red Hill and Mount Saint Helena. The fire continues to make short uphill runs around to the north side of the peaks,” according to a Cal Fire incident report Sunday night.

Firefighters battling the 51,064-acre Atlas fire on the hills east of the Napa Valley continued to gain ground on the blaze overnight, officials said at a briefing Monday morning. The fire was 68 percent contained Monday morning.

Much of the interior of the fire’s footprint — a 51,064 swath of forest between Lake Berryessa and Green Valley in Solano County — is cold.

Light southerly winds that could push the fire north are the main concern for firefighters. Dangerously dry air continues to make flying embers a concern because they can start fast moving grass fires in a flash.

Many of the crews headed out to the fire Monday morning were tasked with mopping up hot spots and shoring up containment lines established overnight.

As the incident transitions into recovery mode, with utility crews lining the narrow winding streets around Atlas Peak repairing power lines, officials have been able to better assess the damage from the deadly blaze, said Capt. Carlos Munoz of Chico Fire. Cal Fire officials said 342 homes have been destroyed and 50 more damaged.

Officials in Napa County, have changed their tone in talking to the community, even though some evacuation orders remain in place.

No longer are they emphasizing the risk of potential devastation to more homes. Instead, they’re pleading for patience while they mop up the fire’s hot spots and have crews clear out scorched debris, fallen trees and repair roads.

Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann described the Atlas Peak area as a “moonscape” with nothing left. Six people have been confirmed dead from the Atlas fire.

It burned everything,” he said at a community meeting Sunday.

In Mendocino County, where eight people have died, the Redwood fire was 35,800 acres and 50 percent contained Monday morning.

Many of the mandatory evacuations in Mendocino and Lake counties were lifted Sunday.

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