40 confirmed dead and at least 5,700 homes and businesses destroyed
October 15, 2017 — With winds dying down, fire officials said on Sunday they had apparently “turned a corner” against wildfires that have devastated California wine country and other parts of the state over the past week. Thousands 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.
“A week ago this started as a nightmare and the day we dreamed of has arrived,” Napa County supervisor Belia Ramos said.
People were being allowed home in areas no longer in harm’s way, and the number of those under evacuation orders was down to 75,000 from nearly 100,000 the day before. Fire crews were able to gain ground because winds that had fanned the flames did not kick up overnight as much as feared.
“Conditions have drastically changed from just 24 hours ago and that is definitely a very good sign,” said Daniel Berlant of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who noted that some of the fires were 50% or more contained. “It’s probably a sign we’ve turned a corner on these fires.”
The blazes were blamed for at least 40 deaths and destroyed some 5,700 homes and other structures. Most victims were elderly, though they ranged in age from 14 to 100. The death toll could climb as searchers dig through the ruins. Hundreds of people were unaccounted for, though authorities said many were probably safe but had not let anyone know.
In hard-hit Sonoma County, Sheriff Rob Giordano said authorities had located 1,560 of more than 1,700 people once listed as missing. Many were put on the list after people called from out of state to say they couldn’t reach a friend or relative.
“It’s a horror that no one could have imagined,” said Governor Jerry Brown, after driving past hundreds of “totally destroyed” homes with US senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris on Saturday. Brown, 79, and Feinstein, 84, said the fires were the worst of their lifetimes and reminded people that the blazes remain a threat and they should leave their homes if told to go.
County officials said they would not let people return home until it was safe and utilities were restored. Crews worked around the clock to connect water and power, in some cases putting up new poles next to smoldering trees, the sheriff said.
Many evacuees grew impatient to at least find out if 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 on 9 October 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.”
Evacuation orders were lifted for Calistoga, a Napa Valley city of 5,000 known for its mud baths, mineral spas and wine tastings. The city was cleared out on Wednesday as winds shifted but homes and businesses were spared.
At the Sonoma fairgrounds, evacuees watched the San Francisco 49ers play Washington 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.
“I’m not saving lives,” he said. “I’m just here to make somebody’s day feel better, make them feel normal.”
Lois Krier, 86, said it was hard to sleep on a cot in the shelter with people snoring and dogs barking. She and her husband, William Krier, 89, were anxious to get home but after being evacuated for a second time in a week on Saturday they didn’t want to risk having to leave again.
“We’re cautious,” she said. “We want to be safe.”
Nearly 11,000 firefighters were still battling 15 fires 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 as firefighters tried to prevent the fire from burning into a retirement community and advancing on to 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.
Some evacuees were returning home in Mendocino County, 70 miles north of the more well-known and more heavily populated Napa and Sonoma. Some residents felt they were being ignored as they dealt with their own catastrophic fires.
“We have been hit just as hard as anyone,” said Sonya Campbell, who lost her house. “I don’t get why we aren’t getting any attention.”
Thousands were evacuated in Mendocino and hundreds lost homes. Eight died, including 14-year-old Kai Shepherd, whose parents and sister suffered severe burns.
No causes have been determined for the fires, though power lines downed by winds are seen as a possibility.