Dozens missing in California wildfires as more evacuees return home

Firefighting helicopters work to contain a wildfire near Oakville, California, U.S., October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

By Jim Christie

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) – Search-and-rescue teams in Northern California will continue to comb through burned homes for dozens of people still missing in the state’s deadliest wildfires, which have killed at least 41 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

Lighter winds were expected, a condition that has helped 11,000 firefighters control the flames which in the past week have consumed more than 245,000 acres (86,200 hectares) in the state, including Napa and Sonoma counties in wine country.

“We’re in a far better position today than we were several days ago,” Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning told Reuters in a phone interview early on Tuesday, referring to the Napa Valley.

Tens of thousands of people who fled the flames in Sonoma County and elsewhere have been allowed to return home, with about 34,000 still displaced.

More evacuees hoped to return home on Tuesday, though officials said the death toll may rise, as 88 people remained unaccounted for in Sonoma County alone.

The Tubbs fire around Calistoga was 82 percent contained and the Atlas fire to the southeast was 77 percent contained on Tuesday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the state’s firefighting agency.

The Nuns Fire, located in Sonoma County and now the state’s largest fire, was 68 percent contained.

Fire officials, employing more than 960 fire engines, 30 air tankers and 73 helicopters, hoped the blazes would be fully contained by Friday. Precipitation is also expected to arrive later in the week, bringing relief from dry conditions.

Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, which had to evacuate last week, reopened Tuesday morning, the Sonoma Sheriff’s Department said.

Paul Neel, who was supervising a home-building project near Santa Rosa, said on Tuesday he lost $20,000 worth of tools, but that the site’s exposed framing and lumber were largely spared the fate of a nearby apartment complex that was completely destroyed.

“We got lucky,” he said. “Someone was watching out for us.”

Daniel Mufson, 74, a retired pharmaceutical executive and one of scores of Napa Valley residents who lost their homes in the fires, described his sense of bewilderment.

“Now we’re just trying to figure out what the next steps are. We’re staying with friends, and dealing with the issues of dealing with insurance companies and getting things cleaned up,” Mufson, who is also president of the community-activist coalition Napa Vision 2050, told Reuters.

‘HUMAN TRAGEDY’

At least 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the wildfires that erupted a week ago and had consumed an area larger than New York City. Entire neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa were reduced to ashes.

The wildfires are California’s deadliest on record, surpassing the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, which had 29 fatalities.

Most of the 1,863 people listed in missing-persons reports have so far turned up safe, including many evacuees who failed to alert authorities after fleeing their homes.

As of Tuesday morning, 65 people were listed as missing in Sonoma County, the sheriff’s office said.

As each day passes, hope dwindles for victims who were in the direct path of the flames, said Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano.

About 30 vintners sustained some fire damage to wine-making facilities, vineyards, tasting rooms or other assets, according to the industry group Napa Valley Vintners.

Only about a half-dozen winemakers reported significant losses, spokeswoman Patsy McGaughy said. Vineyards, which mostly occupy the valley floor, appear to have been largely unscathed as the fires in Napa County burned mainly in the hillsides, McGaughy said.

About 90 percent of Napa’s grape harvest had been picked and escaped exposure to smoke that could have tainted the fruit.

Still, the toll taken on the region has thrown the wine industry into disarray, and McGaughy said the 2017 Napa vintage will likely be smaller than previously expected.

“This is a human tragedy, there are people who have lost their lives, lost their homes, lost their business,” McGaughy said, adding Napa’s celebrated viniculture would recover.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave in Santa Rosa, California; additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Chris Kenning in Chicago; editing by Janet Lawrence, Jeffrey Benkoe and G Crosse)

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Former somalia247.com reporter and currently mareeg media representative in Somalia