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Sonoma County in final stretch of firefight as most large evacuation orders lifted

Inmate Richard Epiceno of Cal Fire Mt. Bullion Inmate Crew 2 lights strips of vegetation on fire with his drip torch during a back firing operation at the Oakmont fire, off Highway 12 in Santa Rosa, California, on Tuesday, October 17, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

J.D. MORRIS,

Firefighters entered the final stretch Wednesday in their bid for complete containment of the deadly wildfires that have raged across the North Bay, getting the most destructive blazes almost entirely under control as thousands more evacuees returned home and local officials laid the groundwork for letting residents revisit burned neighborhoods.

Ten days after California’s deadliest and most destructive fires began in Wine Country and other areas of Northern California, a Cal Fire official said about 42,300 residents have been allowed to return home, most of them in the Santa Rosa area.

Overall, the Northern California fires have claimed at least 42 lives, 23 of them in Sonoma County, including one victim whose remains were found Tuesday in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood.

Sheriff’s officials identified two more victims in the Tubbs fire: Monte Neil Kirven, 81, and Marilyn Carol Ress, 71, both of Santa Rosa.

As firefighters have improved their control over the wildfires in recent days, law enforcement officials have steadily allowed more people back into evacuation zones. On Wednesday, residents of east Santa Rosa, including in Rincon Valley, Skyhawk and the Los Alamos area were allowed to return home.

Evacuation orders also were lifted in parts of Napa County.

While those developments were welcomed by the many anxious and weary residents desperate to finally sleep under their own roofs again, numerous others remain permanently displaced, their homes destroyed.

Now, government leaders are set to begin a discussion about allowing those residents back into their neighborhoods for visits.

“We’re really at a place where we’re talking about recovery rather than the emergency at hand,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. “I know that there’s a lot of anxiety in the community right now from people who still haven’t been able to get back into their neighborhoods and back into the burn areas to see what happened to their homes.”

A pair of public meetings are planned today in Sonoma and Santa Rosa, where leaders will address re-entry for residents into burned areas, the cleanup process for damaged and destroyed properties and the search for replacement housing.

The meetings are set for 1 to 3 p.m. at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building, 126 First St. W.; and 6 to 8 p.m. at Santa Rosa High School’s South Gym, 1235 Mendocino Ave. The meetings will include question-and-answer sessions, officials said.

Coursey said he hoped to see re-entry allowed in burned areas soon, but he did not have a precise timeline, suggesting more clarity would emerge at today’s meetings. At the same time, he warned of health risks and other dangers residents will face when coming back to the ruins, which include toxic materials and debris.

By Wednesday evening, all but one of the North Bay’s major wildfires were more than two-thirds contained. The Tubbs fire, the deadliest blaze, was 91 percent contained and had burned 36,432 acres in Sonoma County. The Nuns fire was 80 percent contained and charred 54,423 acres in Sonoma and Napa counties, while the Pocket fire was 63 percent contained and had covered 14,225 acres east of Geyserville.

Altogether, the fires have consumed more than 105,000 acres in Sonoma and Napa counties. Fire officials now expect to reach full containment on all three blazes by Tuesday, four days later than their previous estimate.

The flames continue to present challenges. Firefighters were back in the Fountaingrove area late Wednesday afternoon to address a flare-up, an ongoing danger from still-smoldering ruins.

“We have a lot of hot areas on these fires, but we have stopped the forward progress and movement,” Bret Gouvea, Cal Fire incident commander, said Wednesday. “There’s a lot of work to do.”

Still, the day held some additional signs of normalcy for many parts of the county. Santa Rosa’s Kaiser Permanente hospital, evacuated as flames raced toward it in the dead of night last week, is slated to reopen Friday, pending successful reviews from state agencies.

Kaiser’s medical offices on Bicentennial Way reopened Monday, and Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, which was also evacuated, reopened Tuesday.

Pacific Gas & Electric crews restored power to about 1,000 additional customers Wednesday, leaving 3,600 in the dark, though repair workers were scheduled to work late into the night, according to a company spokeswoman.

Gas crews restored service to 1,500 Sonoma County customers Wednesday, and about 10,000 remained without service. PG&E hopes to get all ongoing gas customers restored today.

Additionally, Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park reopened its campus Wednesday and Santa Rosa Junior College said it plans to resume classes Monday.

For residents coming back to evacuated neighborhoods, the long-awaited homecoming has been shadowed by unavoidable evidence of the fires’ toll.

Sarah McCarthy, who lives in Rincon Valley, east of Calistoga Road, said she felt grateful she could return home. She had been staying with her parents in Cloverdale since the latest mandatory evacuation for the neighborhood Saturday morning.

But the magnitude of the loss and pain wrought by the firestorm weighed on McCarthy.

“It’s hard to be happy in such a depressing situation,” she said.

Tom Higgins, who lives east of Geyserville not far from where the Pocket fire is still burning, said he found “quite a bit of ash” when he came back to his home Tuesday afternoon. His power flickered on and off.

“It’s still quite active,” he said of the Pocket fire burning east of Alexander Valley. “We were still getting that iridescent red glow in the night.”

A clear picture of the extent of the damage in the county is emerging day by day.

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials said early estimates showed the wildfires destroyed some 6,800 buildings, most of them homes — a loss of more than $3 billion.

A roughly 40-person damage inspection team from Cal Fire is moving methodically through the region to confirm each destroyed structure and as of Tuesday had inspected about half of the fire zone. The agency’s estimate Wednesday evening was 5,791 destroyed structures in the Tubbs, Pocket and Nuns fires in Sonoma and Napa counties.

“I would say a large majority of the heavily populated areas was part of that half, but yes, I think you could continue to see that number rise for probably the next week,” Gouvea said Wednesday.

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano, a regular presence at the emergency command post since Oct. 9, said the extent of damage he saw recently in a flight over the county was stunning.

He said he couldn’t believe how much land the fire burned and how many homes were destroyed.

“I say that because I want people to understand that fire (officials are) doing a great job. They’re shutting this down, but it’s not gonna go away,” Giordano said. “We’re gonna be dealing with this for months and years in the county.”

Staff Writers Martin Espinoza, Guy Kovner, Randi Rossmann and Nick Rahaim contributed reporting.