SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Californians on Monday picked through the debris of homes and businesses incinerated by the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history while firefighters hoped to have the blazes contained by Friday.
At least 41 people have died in the week of fires and crews were still searching for bodies in the state’s celebrated wine country.
With the most destructive fires more than half contained by Monday, tens of thousands of people who fled the flames in hard-hit Sonoma County were allowed to return to their homes north of San Francisco. About 40,000 people remain displaced.
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.
About 11,000 firefighters supported by air tankers and helicopters were battling blazes, which have consumed more than 213,000 acres (86,200 hectares). Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, was hopeful the blazes would be contained by Friday.
“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 Cal Fire spokeswoman Amy Head. “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.
POCKETS OF DESTRUCTION
Paul Neel, 65, the superintendent at a 20-home housing development being built in Santa Rosa, returned to the site for the first time in more than a week on Monday to find his office trailer, thousands of dollars worth of tools and building plans and permits destroyed.
But the wood frames of the still-under-construction houses were intact, with just one needing a few pieces of wood replaced. That was good news to Neel, who said it would allow him to have the first house ready for occupants by Jan. 1.
“We don’t have to start all over again,” he said. “Now the housing is really needed. We will try to accelerate as much as we can.”
On the same street, fire brought down a handful of existing homes, including one where a family of three picked through the ashes Monday with two shovels and two white buckets. The carcasses of six cars were parked in stalls, and a fence across one side of development had been incinerated.
About 50 search-and-rescue personnel backed by National Guard troops were going over tens of thousands of charred acres in Sonoma County for bodies, sheriff’s spokeswoman Misti Harris said.
Crews checked the wreckage of the Journey’s End mobile home park in Santa Rosa for the remains of two people missing after the blaze.
Twenty-two people were killed in Sonoma County and 174 were still listed as missing, although 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.
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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 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.
(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Trott)