SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) - Firefighters began gaining ground on wildfires that killed at least 41 people in the past week, the deadliest blazes in California’s history, as winds eased and searchers combed charred ruins for more victims with hundreds still missing.
The most destructive Northern California fires were more than half contained by Monday, and tens of thousands of residents who had fled the flames in hard-hit Sonoma County were allowed to return to their homes north of San Francisco.
More than 5,700 structures were destroyed by more than a dozen wildfires that ignited a week ago and consumed an area larger than New York City. Entire neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa were reduced to ashes.
“The weather has improved from the high, dry winds we experienced last week, but there’s still winds and high temperatures at high elevations,” said Amy Head, a Cal Fire spokeswoman. “Even if the winds don’t pick up, it’s really steep country and we could have some issues with embers flying across lines. We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Mendocino County authorities said power company PG&E would begin flying low in the county to check lines and re-establish power.
About 11,000 firefighters supported by air tankers and helicopters were battling blazes that have consumed more than 213,000 acres (86,200 hectares).
About 50 search-and-rescue personnel backed by National Guard troops were combing tens of thousands of charred acres in Sonoma County for bodies, sheriff’s spokeswoman Misti Harris said.
“Once it’s safe to go through, we’ll search every structure,” she said.
Twenty-two people were killed in Sonoma County and 174 were still listed as missing, though the number was dropping as more people checked in with authorities.
The driver of a private water tender died in Napa County in a vehicle rollover on Monday, officials said.
Evacuation orders were lifted for the picturesque Napa Valley resort town of Calistoga, whose 5,000 residents were ordered out by authorities four days ago.
RETURNING TO THE UNKNOWN
In Redwood Valley, a scorched Mendocino County town of about 1,700 people, Jami Flores and her family sifted through the ruins of their two-story rental home, which was reduced to rubble.
“There’s been a lot of crying and a lot of emotions,” Flores, 42, said.
Flores, her husband and daughter fled last week after being awoken by the smell of smoke, not uncommon in the area. Seeing a red haze, they rushed to leave amid falling ash and arriving firefighters.
“The mountain was on fire,” Flores said. Now she wonders, “Where do we all go next?”
Firefighters gained control of two of the deadliest fires in wine country’s Napa and Sonoma counties: The Tubbs fire was 70 percent contained and the Atlas fire 68 percent contained, Cal Fire said. Half of the Redwood Valley fire, which alone was responsible for eight deaths in Mendocino County, was extinguished by Monday.
The 41 confirmed fatalities make the fires California’s deadliest since record-keeping began, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.
About 40,000 people remained 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.
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 by 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.
Editing by Paul Tait and Jonathan Oatis