Firefighters Turn Corner in Battle Against North Bay Blazes

1 min
A firefighter uses a drip torch to set a backfire to protect houses in Adobe Canyon during the Nuns Fire on October 15, 2017 near Santa Rosa, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

This post will be updated as new developments become available. It was last updated on Oct. 15, 9:15 p.m. There is an updating post of evacuation notices in the area and a list of shelters and school closures.

Authorities say some of the most destructive wildfires in California’s history have killed at least 40 people. Twenty-two people have died in Sonoma County, eight in Mendocino County, six in Napa County and four in Yuba County.

But fire officials said Sunday they have apparently "turned a corner" against the wildfires and are feeling much more optimistic about their ability to control the blazes.

"A week ago this started as a nightmare, and the day we dreamed of has arrived," Napa County Supervisor Belia Ramos said Sunday.

Around a quarter of the more than 100,000 people who have evacuated because of the fires have been allowed to return. Evacuation orders in Calistoga, which were issued on Wednesday, were lifted on Sunday afternoon. Around 75,000 people remain unable to return to their homes.

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As of Sunday night, the Atlas Fire had burned 51,057 acres in Sonoma and Napa counties and was 65 percent contained. The Tubbs Fire had burned 44,881 acres in Napa County and was 60 percent contained. The Nuns Fire had burned 48,627 acres in Sonoma County and was 40 percent contained.

Fire crews were able to gain ground because the 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 Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

Cal Fire incident commander Bret Gouvea said Sunday that the top priority is now to begin repopulating the affected areas, but he noted that there were a lot of factors that go into that process and asked for people's patience.

"Overall, things are feeling optimistic for us, we're very cautious about that," Gouvea said about the outlook.

Cal Fire said Sunday that there were more than 11,000 firefighters battling 15 large wildfires that had burned more than 217,566 acres in total. An estimated 5,700 structures have been destroyed by the fires.

"This is about the worst fire we've had in my lifetime," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein at a press conference in Santa Rosa on Saturday afternoon.

Feinstein was joined by Sen. Kamala Harris and Gov. Jerry Brown who, prior to the press conference, toured the fire damage including hundreds of homes which had burned to the ground.

"It just brings home what a horrible situation this is," Brown said.

All three elected officials advised residents to abide by evacuation orders and listen to authorities. "We're not out of the woods yet," Brown said. "There's still fires burning. There's still danger."

Feinstein said that she and Harris will work to secure more federal funding to help fight the fires.

"The members of the Congress are going to have to be helpful, and I know they will be," Feinstein said.

Harris said part of the problem is that wildfires are not considered natural disasters when it comes to receiving FEMA relief funds.

"We need to correct that," Harris said. "What ends up happening is the Forest Service doesn't have the resources to deal with what we've been seeing."

Sonoma County Sherrif Rob Giordano said Saturday afternoon that there are 350 law enforcement officials working in the county at all hours of the day.

"There's cops everywhere," Giordano told a community meeting at Santa Rosa High School. He added that members of the National Guard are working with local officials to search for more than 200 people who are still unaccounted for. He said those searches "could take months" to complete.

A sign is posted outside Cline Cellars on October 13, 2017 in Sonoma, California.
A sign is posted outside Cline Cellars on October 13, 2017 in Sonoma, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A Local Assistance Center has been opened in Sonoma County at 427 Mendocino Avenue which will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. as a "one-stop shop" for residents looking for answers and resources. Representatives from FEMA, the California Department of Insurance, county tax collectors and others will be at the LAC to help residents.

County officials said there were 2,000 people sleeping in 24 emergency shelters in Sonoma County with space for another 3,700. County leaders said they are actively investigating ways to deal with the long-term housing issues.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said in a press conference Thursday afternoon that 2,834 homes had been destroyed by fires in the city alone.

"We've lost almost 5 percent of the housing stock in Santa Rosa," Coursey said during a Friday afternoon press conference. "We're looking at $1.2 billion in damage in Santa Rosa alone. It's a huge hill we've got to climb."

A Cal Fire spokeswoman stresses that the agency is investigating a number of potential causes for the fires which started at night on Sunday, Oct. 8. A Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokesman says the historic wind event that swept through the utility’s service area late Sunday night and early Monday packed hurricane strength winds. PG&E blames those winds, the drought and the winter storms for causing trees, branches and debris to impact the company’s electrical lines in the North Bay.

As of Saturday night, more than 3,000 PG&E employees and mutual-aid partners were working on restoring electric and gas to the region, the utility said. PG&E says it has restored power to more than 93 percent of homes and businesses that lost power during the wildfires, with some new customers losing service Friday night due to fires.

26,000 electric customers remain without power in fire-effected areas as of Saturday night in addition to 29,000 gas customers without service, according to PG&E. The utility had proactively turned off gas service to about 42,000 customers since fire response began on Monday, Oct. 9.

Meanwhile, state regulators ordered PG&E to preserve any evidence they discover related to the wildfires on Thursday.

A spokeswoman for the agency says that they will formally investigate PG&E if Cal Fire finds that the utilities’ power lines caused the fires. In the meantime agency staff are examining PG&E’s activities in the areas on fire, focusing on maintenance.

Under California law, utility companies are required to provide clearance between trees and their power lines.

Last year the state fined PG&E $90 million after determining that the company’s power lines caused a catastrophic Butte Fire that killed two people in 2015.

It may take awhile for Cal Fire to determine the fires' cause though.

“The devastation is enormous,” Giordano said. “We can’t even get into most of the areas.”

Communications in the region have been difficult since the fires broke out last weekend, with many losing their power and struggling to find reliable cell coverage. Giordano said Wednesday morning that the National Guard has brought in a satellite cell system to help people connect with loved ones.

Of the 77 cell towers knocked out in the fires, all but eight have been restored, according to the California Office of Emergency Services.

AT&T has deployed mobile cell sites to Santa Rosa, Willits and the Napa Town & County Fairgrounds to connect customers and emergency responders who have been without wireless service and connectivity since early Monday. Comcast has expanded use of its Wi-Fi hotspots to the public for free.

The lack of connectivity has made it difficult for people in the area to connect with loved ones. Officials are asking people to register themselves at safeandwell.org to alert friends and family of their status.

Below: A sortable list of the 44 people identified as having died as a result of the October fires in Northern California . To access links, right click (Windows) or control click (Mac OS X):


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