Finally, rain in Northern California helps with deadly fires

Usually, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Jones hates rain.

But on Thursday afternoon, after a week and a half of answering reporters’ questions about the strong winds and heat driving Northern California’s deadly wildfires, and repeatedly updating the rising death toll, Jones saw raindrops begin to fall on his way into work at the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

Finally, he felt relief.

“We’ve been battling Mother Nature the whole time, and to have her finally relent and give us the rain we needed to put this thing out, it felt like the end scene of the movie where you feel like you’ve survived,” Jones said Friday morning.

Light rain began to fall Thursday afternoon in Northern California, giving some respite to the firefighters who have been battling flames that have scorched more than 240,000 acres, killed 42 people and caused more than $1 billion worth of insured losses.

Stoked at times by 50-mph winds, there have been 18 large wildfires in Northern California, displacing about 100,000 people and destroying approximately 7,700 homes and other buildings since the blazes began Oct. 8, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Some of those fires merged as about 11,000 firefighters struggled to establish containment lines and prevent the spread of the flames.

As of Friday morning, there were still seven large wildfires burning in the region and firefighters had achieved majority containment, or were close to doing so, on all of them, according to Cal Fire.

Parts of the areas affected by fires saw a quarter to three-quarters of an inch of rain overnight, said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

“That rain … allowed for minimal fire activity and has continued to give us an opportunity to continue our containment lines and even strengthen them in other areas,” Berlant said.

In Sonoma County, the Nuns fire was reported to be 85% contained Friday morning after burning 54,382 acres; The Tubbs fire, which is the most destructive wildfire in California history, was 93% contained after burning 36,432 acres; the smaller 16,552-acre Pocket fire was 82% contained.

In Napa County, the Atlas fire was 87% contained Friday morning after burning 51,624 acres and killing at least six people.

And in Mendocino and Lake counties, the 36,523-acre Redwood fire was 95% contained and the 2,207-acre Sulphur fire was 96% contained Friday.

Friday’s rain, and the combination of cooler temperatures and higher humidity, will continue to help firefighters, Berlant said.

Temperatures might warm over the weekend into the 80s, but “overall conditions are still favorable for us to continue our progress on these fires,” Berlant said. “We’ll likely have full containment on the fires by early next week.”

Though most mandatory evacuation orders have been lifted, about 15,000 people remain displaced across the region, according to Berlant.

In Sonoma County, the evacuations do not affect homes that are still at risk of burning — they’re mostly in areas where homes are in or near a burn zone, Jones said.

Fire authorities are beginning to shift resources back to Southern California, where moderate Santa Ana wind gusts and high temperatures are expected Saturday through Sunday morning, creating the potential for fires to spread quickly, Berlant said. Temperatures may crawl into the triple digits by Monday.

“We are watching Southern California and preparing down there at the same time,” Berlant said.

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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