Firefight ‘turning corner’ as some evacuees allowed to return home

Improved weather and more firefights mean gains against the Sonoma County wildfires, but preliminary estimates of the property toll signal a prolonged recovery effort.|

Despite favorable weather and a surge in firefighting resources that led officials Sunday to claim the weeklong battle against several Sonoma County wildfires was “turning a corner,” the property toll from the fires more than doubled as a sobering new tally estimated they had destroyed some 6,700 structures and left more than $3 billion in losses.

The improved conditions in the fires that have killed at least 40 people - including 22 in Sonoma County - prompted authorities to lift evacuation orders for Calistoga and parts of the Larkfield-Wikiup neighborhood north of Santa Rosa. All evacuation orders for Healdsburg were lifted as well.

The most destructive fire, the Tubbs fire, is now 60 percent contained and firefighters reported gaining substantial ground on other regional blazes as well, including the Nuns fire which Saturday destroyed homes in Sonoma less than 2 miles from the historic Plaza.

“Today, finally, is a day where at least we here in the city of Santa Rosa, we feel like we can take a breath,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey at an afternoon press conference. “Instead of just worrying about the five minutes in front of our faces … We’re able to take a step back, look five days out, maybe even five weeks out. We’ll be looking five years out.”

The deadliest and most destructive fires in state history still have 17,700 households in Sonoma County without power, a PG&E spokesman said, but that was a substantial reduction from previous days.

Warm, dry conditions forecast today for Santa Rosa with highs in the upper 80s and low humidity are expected to give way to cool, wet weather toward the end of the week. That could aid the thousands of firefighters battling a series of devastating wildfires that have charred more than 106,000 acres in Sonoma County alone. ?At the same time, the grim extent of the wildfires’ toll on human life and property loss has continued to grow as officials released more victims’ names and painted a clearer picture of the damage to the county’s unincorporated areas.

Sheriff’s officials identified an additional four of the 22 victims confirmed dead in Sonoma County. They are Carmen Colleen McReynolds, 82, of Santa Rosa; Lee Chadwick Roger, 72, of Glen Ellen; Daniel Martin Southard, 71, of Santa Rosa, and Sharon Rae Robinson, 79, of Santa Rosa.

The fires have killed at least 40 people in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Yuba counties.

“It’s hard to talk about putting people back in their home and yet other people will never go back to their home,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano at the press conference. “(It’s) a difficult part of the puzzle.”

Sonoma County officials also shed new light on the staggering property losses estimated throughout the region from the wildfires. Within the unincorporated county, an estimated ?3,819 structures - primarily homes - have been destroyed, representing a loss of more than $2 billion, according to a preliminary assessment from county officials.

Combined with numbers previously reported by the city of Santa Rosa, flames have destroyed more than 6,700 structures countywide, causing a total loss of more than $3 billion.

“Behind every one of those numbers are people, families, that are really going to be struggling and have to deal with that,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “It makes the magnitude of this really just cataclysmic.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins wrote of the losses on her Facebook page that “sadly we anticipate that this total will grow.”

Sunday afternoon, 174 people were still reported missing, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Law enforcement has responded to 150 calls for service related to looting and made 13 arrests, police said.

Sonoma County wildfires have now burned 106,272 acres over the past week, the equivalent of 166 square miles of urban and rural landscape in greater Santa Rosa, the Sonoma Valley and the Geyserville area, Cal Fire said late Sunday.

But fire crews were able Sunday to significantly bolster containment of the four fires burning here, raising containment on the largest blaze, the Nuns fire, to 40 percent, officials said.

The Tubbs fire was at 60 percent containment late Sunday, while the Pocket fire outside Geyserville was at 30 percent, and the 1½-day-old Oakmont fire across Highway 12 from Oakmont, was at 15 percent.

More than 4,230 personnel are now on the firelines, supported Sunday by 10 air tankers and 33 helicopters, Cal Fire said.

The initial Sonoma County fires were among well over a dozen in Northern California that started within the same 12-to-24 hours Oct. 8 and 9.

Resources were stretched extremely thin between the fires, but with some winding down, a growing number of fire personnel have converged on Sonoma County, particularly since Friday, Cal Fire officials said.

“It’s steadily climbed,” agency spokesman Jonathan Cox said Sunday. “We’re probably double what we were toward the end of last week.”

Still, the actively burning fires continued to pose new challenges and threaten public lands. Flames flaring Sunday afternoon above the Sonoma Valley floor near Kenwood sent up huge plumes of smoke near Hood Mountain Regional Park, part of a punishing run on public parklands in the fire zone.

Trione-Annadel State Park was swept with fire early last week, before wildfires spread and multiplied through the week.

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and Hood Mountain were right in the center of the action Sunday, as the 47,000-acre Nuns fire spread north and west into Sugarloaf park and the 700-acre Oakmont fire that started overnight Friday near Pythian Road moved toward the neighboring blaze on a trajectory through Hood Mountain, fire officials said.

“It looks angry up there,” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said. “There’s no way around it. The thought is they (the fires) will grow together.”

The latest information indicated that the Sugarloaf visitor center, white barn and Robert Ferguson Observatory were still standing.

Fire officials said the absence of strong winds caused smoke to rise in well-developed plumes on Sunday, in contrast to the layers of smoke that spread in thick layers across the region during higher winds.

Among the other parks affected by recent fires are Shiloh Ridge Regional Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park, though to what degree is not clear.

The local assistance center opened over the weekend by the Federal Emergency Management Agency continued to draw a long line outside its location on the first floor of The Press Democrat building at 427 Mendocino Ave.

Among those waiting Sunday were local residents Alysson Chandler and Wes Daniels, who lost homes they built together 40 years ago on Winter Creek Road near Mark West Springs Road northwest of Santa Rosa.

Chandler, 69, said she felt “totally emotionally drained” one week after her home was destroyed.

“In our case, our houses, we designed them, we built them - and I mean literally, with our hands - when we were young,” she said. “We poured every yard of concrete. We raised every stick … It’s 40 years of life experience there, and loving things and caring for the wildlife, and it’s all gone. All gone.”

Despite their losses, which prompted them to move into an empty unit of a Santa Rosa duplex they own, they intend to rebuild, Daniels said.?They were among the 102,000 residents the county estimated displaced by the fires as of Sunday morning, some with no home to return to and others merely evacuated for safety reasons.

But the county began Sunday allowing people back into neighborhoods that were evacuated, but spared destruction. Giordano said Sunday that after lifting orders in the Larkfield-Wikiup area, authorities plan to follow with Bennett Valley, then Glen Ellen and then Kenwood.

“Everybody’s working to put people back into those places, and they’re really trying to make a huge dent in 24 hours,” Giordano said. “It’s just a matter of getting the services turned back on and everything put back together.”

Before the evacuation orders were lifted Sunday for parts of Larkfield, several displaced residents impatient to get back into their homes held signs at the corner of Airport Boulevard and Old Redwood Highway, one reading “End Evacuation Now!”

“A lot of people are really sad and kind of angry,” said Henry “J.R” Frasier, 28, night manager at Berry’s Market & Deli on Airport Boulevard and Aero Drive, a Larkfield-Wikiup gathering spot. “The stress has calmed a little bit.

“A lot of people have realized that their homes are not destroyed.

The worry of losing their homes is going away, but it’s being replaced with impatience at not being able to go home.”

By the time police began allowing residents back to the area about 6:10 p.m., a crowd of eager residents had gathered and traffic was backing up to the north and west. People applauded and cheered after police started allowing cars through once they had established the new boundaries of the evacuation zone.

Nicole Himber, 29, was standing on the corner itching to get back inside her home that was just beyond the old boundary.

She was at a family wedding in Napa County when she received word of her neighborhood’s evacuation one week earlier. Since then, she’d been staying at the restoration company she owns and with family in Cloverdale, with only two outfits to wear and two children to care for.

“I’m on the verge of tears right now,” she said after the neighborhood opened. “I’m so happy to be home.”

Staff Writer Dan Taylor contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @thejdmorris. You can reach staff writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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