As more people returned to their homes in Northern California on Tuesday and officials continued the search for dozens of missing people, fire crews gained additional ground on the deadly blazes that have scorched more than 210,000 acres and killed at least 41.
The four largest fires were all more than 50% contained as of Tuesday morning.
The 52,894-acre Nuns fire, which gave firefighters the most trouble over the weekend, was 68% contained.
Crews made progress against the two parts of the fire closest to the cities of Sonoma and Santa Rosa, officials told firefighters at a morning briefing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Some parts of the area remained evacuated.
“Today and the next few days, there’s a lot less smoke in the air and a lot less media attention here, but the job’s not done,” said Steve Crawford, operations section chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
He said he is also feeling better about the fire that ignited Saturday near the Oakmont neighborhood on the eastern edge of Santa Rosa. That blaze grew throughout the day Monday to 1,029 acres, and was 27% contained as of Tuesday morning.
“My comfort level’s coming up really good on that section,” Crawford said Tuesday morning.
The hills above Oakmont are dense with dead leaves, pine needles and grasses that provide plenty of fuel for the fire, Cal Fire officials wrote in their daily briefing. With only moderate wind, the fire will continue to burn with high intensity and put off heavy smoke, they said.
Officials told firefighters to be meticulous about extinguishing dead trees and smoldering piles of grasses and leaves near the Oakmont fire because higher winds expected later Tuesday could deposit embers in unburned areas, igniting new fires.
“Mop-up’s going to be the key. As we get to the point where the perimeter’s controlled, all the stuff inside needs to be controlled, 100%,” said Don Watt, a Cal Fire fire behavior analyst.
Most of Sonoma County’s mandatory evacuations were lifted by Monday, though areas of Glen Ellen and Kenwood are still under evacuation orders.
Firefighters Monday night encountered light winds that helped their efforts, though temperatures were higher and humidity was lower than they had hoped for, said Sonoma County sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Jones.
Firefighters are hoping that winds don’t kick back up Tuesday like they’re forecast to, Jones said.
“We’re hoping for low winds,” Jones said. “We’ve had three nice days. We want to keep it going.”
The biggest danger to firefighters over the next few days is fatigue, which has set in after eight long, smoky days of firefighting, officials told crews in Sonoma on Tuesday morning.
“You guys have been in warp drive,” said Bret Gouvea, the Cal Fire incident commander. “Now the adrenaline is coming off. You’re feeling the fatigue. You’re getting tired. Let’s finish this thing strong, without any major accidents.”
Officials urged firefighters to extinguish smaller fires in burned-out areas as they work, to avoid concerning or endangering residents.
Firefighters also shared a moment of silence for a worker on contract with Cal Fire who was killed yesterday when his truck rolled over in Napa.
Many Santa Rosa residents are beginning to rebuild their lives after the Tubbs fire scorched 36,432 acres, leveling much of the city and destroying about 5% of its residences. The fire was 82% contained Tuesday morning.
Officials have allowed 36,225 people to return to nearly 14,000 homes Monday and Tuesday, officials said. Shelters around the county that at their peaks housed 5,000 people are now down to about 400.
It could be days or even weeks before residents in the burn areas are let back onto their property, though, Sonoma County officials said Tuesday afternoon. There were 121 county employees who lost their homes in the fires, county officials said.
More than 1,500 people have used the local assistance center that the county and Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with more than 30 other agencies, set up in Santa Rosa to help residents get vital documents they may have lost in the fires, including driver’s licenses, Jones said.
More than a week after it was evacuated because of the Tubbs fire, the Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital reopened.
The Kaiser Santa Rosa hospital, which was also evacuated, has not reopened yet, though medical offices on the campus reopened Monday.
Sutter had to be cleaned and inspected by state officials, according to hospital officials. The hospital evacuated 77 patients last week as flames approached the facility. Firefighters used the hospital’s underground water tanks to battle the wildfires.
In Napa County, the Atlas fire is nearing full containment, and residents who have been out of their home for more than a week are starting to return, Cal Fire officials said at a morning briefing Tuesday. The fire has burned 51,064 acres and was 77% contained Tuesday morning.
“Tremendous work is being done, and last night was no exception,” Battalion Chief Chris Waters told firefighters at the base camp at the Napa Valley Expo. “As far as the Atlas fire, it’s all mop-up and patrol.”
The blaze, which raced through Atlas Peak on Oct. 8, has killed at least six people, destroyed 388 homes and damaged 55 others.
Despite the progress, nearly 1,000 homes still are considered to be under threat, and not all mandatory evacuations have been lifted, officials said. Atlas Peak and other secluded areas that were hard hit by the fire remain closed to residents.
But it seems only a matter of time.
The weather is improving, with humidity returning, winds weakening and temperatures cooling, Tom Wright of the National Weather Service told crews. Still, officials told firefighters to be vigilant of southwest winds that could push flames northeast into unburned areas.
More than 3,400 firefighters are at the scene, but some are expected to be reassigned to other incidents Tuesday, officials said.
The Redwood fire in Mendocino County, which burned 35,800 acres and was responsible for eight deaths, was 60% contained Tuesday morning. The nearby Sulphur fire was 2,207 acres and 92% contained.
All Redwood fire evacuation orders have been lifted, though some areas of Potter Valley are still under evacuation warnings. Officials warned that “residents returning to the fire area should exercise extreme caution,” keeping clear of downed trees and power lines as well as fire and utility crews in the area.
Officials are still trying to determine the causes of more than 17 fires that have ravaged the region.
Cal Fire’s investigation into the cause may take weeks or months.
In Santa Rosa, a homeless man was arrested on suspicion of arson Sunday after he was seen walking away from an area where a fire had recently been lit, officials said.
“There is no indication that he is responsible for these fires,” which began a week before the man’s arrest, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said Tuesday afternoon.
Jesus Fabian Gonzalez, 29, was arrested on suspicion of felony arson and booked at the Sonoma County Jail.
Three Sonoma County probation officers patrolling Maxwell Farms Regional Park just before 3 p.m. Sunday noticed a plume of smoke rising from an area near the Sonoma Creek, Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Misti Harris said.
Gonzalez walked away from the fire as the officers approached, Harris said.
“Nobody else was in the area,” Harris said.
Deputies with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department followed Gonzalez to a nearby McDonald’s. Gonzalez had “previous contacts” with law enforcement, she said.
Gonzalez told police he started the fire because he was cold, Harris said. Officers found a lighter in his pocket.
Gonzalez is being held on bail of $110,000, according to Sonoma County booking records — $10,000 for the felony arson charge, and $100,000 for a bench warrant issued in Ventura County.
There have been some arrests related to the fires: One person was arrested for driving a decommissioned fire truck through a burn zone, Giordano said.
2:10 p.m.: This article was updated with Sonoma County evacuations being lifted, and a comment from Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano.
10:50 a.m.: This article was updated with information about an arrest in Santa Rosa.
8:55 a.m.: This article was updated with the latest acreage counts and information from Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties.
This article was originally published at 6:55 a.m.