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California wildfires have killed 40 people; dozens still missing as firefighters make progress

Firefighters made significant progress Sunday on two of the biggest wildfires raging across Northern California, but officials cautioned that they still face major challenges.

The winds that bedeviled firefighters Saturday remained mostly calm, allowing them to go back on the offense after a day of new evacuations. Officials said they strengthened containment lines on the massive Tubbs and Atlas fires, which by Sunday evening were 60% and 65% contained, respectively.

“Any day we don’t have flareups and significant fire activity popping up unexpectedly in those communities that are affected is a good day,” said Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal for the Santa Rosa Fire Department. “I would say today is a step in the right direction.”

By Sunday evening, residents of some neighborhoods, including parts of Larkfield-Wikiup, Calistoga and areas south of Lake Curry, were allowed to go home.

In Solano County, evacuations remain in place for the Berryessa Highlands, Circle Oaks and Green Valley communities, among other neighborhoods, but officials have changed their tone in describing the Atlas fire.

No longer are they emphasizing the risk of potential devastation to more homes, 303 of which have already been destroyed by the blaze. Instead, they’re pleading for patience while they mop up the fire’s hot spots and have crews repair roads and clear out scorched debris and fallen trees.

Firefighters on Sunday shifted their focus to the 48,000-acre Nuns fire, moving more than a dozen fixed-wing aircraft from the Atlas fire to fight that blaze. By Sunday evening, the Nuns, burning southeast of Santa Rosa, was 40% contained but remained active on its north end.

“We have some areas out there that are just fighting us, they are bucking us,” said Cal Fire incident commander Bret Gouvea. “We have good resources on them, we have a lot of aircraft on them, but they are just bucking us back.”

Another major concern is a wildfire near the Oakmont area of Santa Rosa. The fire, which has scorched 575 acres since igniting Saturday, is 15% contained.

The fires are among a series of blazes burning across Northern California that have scorched more than 220,000 acres and claimed at least 40 lives since they began Oct. 8. Twenty-two people have died in the Tubbs fire in Sonoma County, eight in Mendocino County, four in Yuba County and six in Napa County.

Sonoma County officials on Sunday released the names of four fire victims. They are Sharon Rae Robinson, 79, of Santa Rosa; Daniel Martin Southard, 71, of Santa Rosa; Lee Chadwick Roger, 72, of Glen Ellen; and Carmen Colleen McReynolds, 82, of Santa Rosa.

Many more people were being treated for burns, smoke inhalation and injuries suffered as they evacuated, including one person who was kicked by a horse and another who collided with a firetruck in the thick smoke.

As of late Sunday, 174 people were still missing in Sonoma County, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Of 224 people initially unaccounted for in Napa County, 146 have been found safe, four have been identified as dead and 74 remain missing, Napa County spokeswoman Molly Rattigan said.

As many as 10,000 firefighters from throughout California and surrounding states have battled the fires around the clock.

“I know a lot of you are hurting, bleeding,” Gouvea of Cal Fire told firefighters at a Sunday morning briefing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. “It’s been a long road. You couldn’t do any more for us, and I sincerely appreciate the effort. We are going to get this done, very shortly.”

While some residents breathed a sigh of relief Sunday that their homes were spared, others whose homes are now rubble struggled with what to do next.

Daniel Crowell and his 9-year-old daughter, Iris, whose Coffey Park home burned down last week, got a rental van and filled it to the ceiling with donated boxes of toiletries, gallons of water and other supplies to take to people in Santa Rosa.

“I felt helpless, and it felt like the best thing to do when you feel helpless is to help others,” said Crowell, 43.

He woke up to the smell of smoke the night of Oct. 8 and rushed out of the house with his daughter and 6-year-old son as their front lawn began to catch fire. “I knew right then, this is it. It’s gone,” he said.

After losing their home, the Crowells spent a few days in shock, grieving its loss. All that was left were Crowell’s car, two metallic folding chairs that peeked out of the rubble and ashes.

Eventually, they sought a distraction.

“We have friends and family who have been supporting us and helping us, but I know there are people who don’t have that, and I felt like I needed to do something just to kind of help make sure people get through this,” said Crowell, who works at a school in Santa Rosa.

Next weekend, they plan to move in to a friend’s home in Santa Rosa that’s two miles away.

“It’s smaller than what we’re used to, but at the same time we don’t have any possessions, so I think it’ll probably work out pretty good,” said Crowell, laughing.

Over the next few days, weather conditions are expected to improve significantly, said Charles Bell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Winds from the southwest could bring cooler temperatures and more moisture.

There is a 70% chance of rain forecast for Santa Rosa on Thursday evening, with relative humidity in the area expected to increase to more than 90% ahead of the rain system, Bell said.

“It will bring more moist air, which is extremely beneficial for the firefighters,” he said. “It’s a big change that’s going to happen.”

Fire officials warned that although winds have died down, the fire could still behave erratically, sending embers up to a quarter-mile away to ignite new fires. They also said fire continues to threaten the outskirts of Sonoma.

Officials believe the death toll will rise as searchers make their way through the neighborhoods in Santa Rosa that burned down as well as mountain communities across wine country.

It’s delicate, sensitive work.

On Saturday, more than two dozen law enforcement officials converged in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, along a street where every home had been destroyed. Two officers opened the trunk of their patrol car, retrieved a drone and launched it above the wreckage.

The drone hovered above the crumbling walls and destroyed homes, slowly rotating in midair. Later, two officers stepped into the crumbling remains of a garage, where the burned-out shell of a car was barely visible from a distance. One officer knelt next to the vehicle and began delicately handing fragments from the scene to his partner. Officials with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office later confirmed that one of two additional deaths reported Saturday had been found in Fountaingrove, but they did not say where.

Members of the public have been urged to avoid trying to help in the cleanup. The Napa County public health director declared a local emergency in order to bring in more resources to remove toxic ash and burnt remnants of homes and cars.

Times staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

laura.nelson@latimes.com

joseph.serna@latimes.com

ben.poston@latimes.com

soumya.karlamangla@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

9:25 p.m.: This article was updated with new acreage and containment figures, as well as more information from fire officials.

6:15 p.m.: This article was updated to note that some evacuation orders were lifted.

4:25 p.m.: This article was updated with an interview with a man who lost his Coffey Park home.

3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with new information from Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and the St. Joseph Health hospital group.

2:30 p.m: This article was updated with new information regarding the identification of fire victims.

2:20 p.m.: This article was updated with new information from fire officials regarding evacuations.

2:00 p.m.: This article was updated with new information from fire officials.

1:25 p.m.: This article was updated with new information from the National Weather Service.

12:30 p.m. This article was updated with new information from fire officials.

11:20 a.m.: This article was updated with new information from fire officials

10:05 a.m.: This article was updated with new information from fire and weather service officials.

8:35 a.m.: This article was updated with new information from fire officials.

7:40 a.m.: This post was updated with new containment information.

This post was originally published at 7:30 a.m.

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