Firefighters tightened their grip Tuesday around a series of deadly blazes still burning across the North Bay as more people forced to evacuate were allowed back to their homes and the regional focus shifted to recovery.
Nine days after firestorms ambushed sleeping residents, driving tens of thousands from their homes across the region, 36,000 of those displaced by fires in Sonoma County have been allowed to return to their neighborhoods, including those in Oakmont and Larkfield-Wikiup, the Sonoma Valley and outlying areas of Geyserville.
It was a measure of the success of firefighting efforts across Napa and Sonoma counties, where separate infernos since Oct. 8 have charred almost 103,000 acres.
The deadliest blaze, the Tubbs fire, which killed at least 22 people as it spread from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, had blackened 36,432 acres and was 87 percent contained, while the Nuns fire straddling Sonoma and Napa counties had burned 52,894 and was 78 percent contained.
Cal Fire Incident Commander Bret Gouvea said “our confidence is increasing daily.” Rain is forecast Thursday and full containment of all the fires is expected Friday.
“Our continued priority is re-population,” he said at a Tuesday news conference. “As much as we can, as quickly as we can.”
Still, crews continued to battle flames on Mount St. Helena in Napa County, and in the hills east of Sonoma Valley and outside of Geyserville in Sonoma County.
The Oakmont fire continued to grow into Tuesday afternoon with crews battling the flames in rough country off Pythian Road and Adobe Canyon Road outside of Kenwood. It was at 1,029 acres with 27 percent containment.
“We are very concerned with this fire,” said Jerry Fernandez, Cal Fire spokesman, a mile from the fire line. “It is very active.”
Homes are scattered throughout the mountains and wind had picked up at higher elevations, Fernandez said.
White smoke billowed up from Adobe Canyon as helicopters dropped water on active fire zones at noon. A 747 supertanker remained on standby to drop flame retardant on the blaze, Fernandez said.
The Oakmont fire was sparked from the Nuns fire Saturday morning forcing the evacuation of many Rincon Valley residents.
On the Tubbs fire, crews took to steep and rocky terrain on Mount St. Helena to battle its northern spread, said Cal Fire Section Chief Steve Crawford.
“(We) had some really aggressive firefighters who took the initiative to create a great plan,” Crawford said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
The steep slopes didn’t allow crews to use a bulldozer to create a containment line in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, Crawford said. The fire has burned a large section of the park in both Napa and Sonoma counties, according to Cal Fire maps.
All told, fires have charred nearly a tenth of Sonoma County’s 1 million acres. Local officials estimated the number of structures lost at about 6,800. Cal Fire put the figure at 5,017.
Countywide damage was estimated at $3 billion.
Of the about 1,900 initial missing persons reports related to the fires in Sonoma County, just 53 remain outstanding, Sheriff Rob Giordano said. He expects the number to drop further.
Giordano also reported multiple arrests related to potential looting, but he believes all suspects were caught before they were able to steal anything. One suspect entered an area in a decommissioned fire truck and another pretended to be a security guard, he said.
Since the evacuation orders came more than a week ago, 35 people have been arrested related to looting, including 17 arrests by sheriff’s deputies and 18 by Santa Rosa police.
All mandatory evacuation orders were lifted Monday in Mendocino County as firefighters were able to make gains battling the Redwood Valley fire, said Lt. Shannon Barney, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.
Eight people lost their lives in the blaze. Redwood Valley residents who’ve been identified as victims include Kai Shepherd, 14, Irma Elsie Bowman, 88, and her husband, Roy Howard Bowman, 87.
Napa County’s largest blaze, the Atlas fire, was at 51,064 acres and 80 percent containment Tuesday, according to Cal Fire.
Napa County officials identified the victim of a water tender crash Monday as a volunteer firefighter from Missouri named Garrett Paiz.
Paiz, 38, died early Monday morning while trying to negotiate winding Oakville Grade into Napa County.
The CHP said he was on his way in darkness to refill a large water tanker being used to battle the Nuns fire, which has spread north from Sonoma County into neighboring Napa County.
The tanker went off the road, broke through a guardrail and plunged about 20 feet into a ravine not far from the bottom of the grade and Highway 29, authorities said.
Paiz was a volunteer firefighter with the Noel Fire Department in southwest Missouri but was working as a driver under contract to Cal Fire and would have been unfamiliar with the steep and curving roadway, authorities said.
Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital reopened Tuesday, admitting patients for the first time since evacuating and shuttering the facility Oct. 9.
Classes resume today at Sonoma State University. Santa Rosa Junior College officials said classes would resume there Oct. 23.
Some Santa Rosa families who remain displaced questioned the validity of the standing evacuation orders in Skyhawk and Rincon Valley.
Adam and Heather Peters left their home the first morning of the Tubbs fire. Their Barnes Road home just north of the Coffey Park neighborhood was severely damaged in the fire and will likely have to be rebuilt.
The couple fled to Adam’s parents house in Rincon Valley until that neighborhood, along with several others along Highway 12, was place under a mandatory evacuation early Saturday morning due to a new fire in the hills east of the Oakmont community.
On Tuesday afternoon, officials lifted the evacuation of Oakmont, which the couple pointed out was much closer to the fire than Rincon Valley.
Adam, a police officer at Sonoma State University, said he did not believe there was any legal standing for maintaining the evacuation of neighborhoods that are several miles away from the Oakmont fire, which has merged into the Nuns fire.
“The evacuation has been lifted over where we have our burned house on Barnes,” Heather Peters said.
Adam contended that according to published Office of Emegency Services guidance there needs to be an imminent threat to a property for a mandatory evacuation to be established. He questioned whether such a threat now exists.
“Not being able to get into that area is more difficult than actually losing my house,” he said, adding that he needs to get clothing and other things for his job. “I’m pretty familiar with legal requirements in general and I sort of feel like they’ve overextended here.”
With some residents having been kept from their homes for more than a week, law enforcement officers have witnessed rising tension.
Some angry residents have “screamed, spit and cursed at” law enforcement working road closures, said CHP spokesman Jon Sloat.
One person even called a National Guard member “the enemy,” Sloat said.
“Today’s key word is patience,” Giordano said, noting there is “a lot of frustration.”
In Lake County, the Sulfur fire near Clearlake was nearing 100 percent containment. More than 130 homes were destroyed, mostly at Gooseneck Point, Sheriff Brian Martin said.
The fire, also sparked just before midnight Oct. 8, forced the evacuation of more than 4,000 residents.