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Rain falls on Sonoma County fires, evacuees return home

A large taxidermied bear remains standing at the site of the fire ravaged Schmidt Firearms store in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, October 18, 2017. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

MARY CALLAHAN,

Rain finally fell Thursday on fire-scarred Sonoma County and a growing number of residents were allowed to return home as the region’s focus shifts from crisis to recovery.

Cal Fire officials said crews have halted the advance of devastating fires that swept through the region over the last 12 days, consuming 87,382 acres in Sonoma County. Containment lines are approaching 100 percent, though some areas within the perimeters are still on fire.

There was welcome news for residents of several fire-ravaged Santa Rosa neighborhoods, as well. Residents who lost homes in three neighborhoods — Coffey Park, and the Journey’s End and Orchard Park mobile home parks — were given permission to visit what remained beginning at 10 a.m. today and check for any personal property they might be able to recover.

Despite profound loss, fire officials spoke of growing optimism.

“We’re getting close to the end,” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said.

An unprecedented series of fires driven by extreme wind conditions have devastated several counties in Northern California over the past 12 days, killing at least 23 people in Sonoma County and destroying at least 5,791 structures, though some estimates are much higher.

State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said Thursday that the region’s fires account for most of more than $1 billion in insured fire losses so far, according to preliminary reports of claims provided by eight California insurers. And the numbers are expected to climb.

“These numbers are just the beginning of the story as one of the deadliest and costliest wildfire catastrophes in California’s history,” Jones said in a news release. “The tragic death of 42 people and over a billion in property losses are numbers — behind these numbers are thousands of people who’ve been traumatized by unfathomable loss.”

Those who died in the early hours of the Tubbs fire as it swept across the Mayacamas Mountains from Calistoga to east Santa Rosa include a well-known wildlife biologist who played a critical role in preservation of the threatened peregrine falcon species. Monte Kirven, 81, died at his home on Linda Lane in the Mark West Springs Road area, authorities said.

The Mendocino County Coroner’s Office also identified the remaining five of eight victims killed in wildfires that burned through Potter Valley and Redwood Valley beginning Oct. 8.

They include Steve Bruce Stelter, 56, and his girlfriend, Janet Kay Constanzo, 71; Jane Gardiner, 83, and her caregiver, Elizabeth Charlene Foster, 64; and Margaret Stephenson, 86, all of Redwood Valley.

The rain that arrived in the region Thursday afternoon brought welcome moisture to the area, but was not expected to be sufficient to douse what remains of active fire, officials said.

“The rain that we will receive will not put the fire out,” Gossner said. “You need up to 2 inches of rain to make a dent.”

National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Anderson said Santa Rosa could expect less than a quarter of an inch overnight, with up to a half-inch in some higher elevations. But the rain was to be short-lived, with warm, dry weather returning by Sunday and dry, northerly winds expected to arrive Monday.

Fire managers expressed confidence in their command of the fires.

“We have firelines all around these fires and the forward spread is stopped,” Cal Fire Incident Commander Bret Gouvea told a standing room-only crowd at a town hall meeting at Santa Rosa High School Thursday night.

By Thursday night, the Tubbs fire was pronounced 92 percent contained, at 36,432 acres; the Pocket fire, 80 percent contained, at 16,552 acres; and the Nuns fire, 84 percent contained, having burned 34,398 acres in Sonoma County and 20,025 acres in Napa County. The Redwood Complex fire in Mendocino County was 90 percent contained, at 36,523 acres on Thursday night.

Also Thursday, the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport had its first full day of regular service since the fires erupted, Airport Manager Jon Stout said.

The airport lost power on Oct. 9 and regained electricity the following day, but the outage triggered flight cancellations for much of last week. Smoky skies impacted many flights and a shortage of hotels forced United, Alaska and American airlines to cancel some flights because their overnight crews could not find hotel rooms, Stout said.

Those crews had used both the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country and the Fountaingrove Inn to stay overnight. Both facilities burned in the Tubbs fire. The airlines have since found other lodging for their overnight crews, Stout said.

In the Sonoma Valley, where several hundred homes were lost in communities like Kenwood, Glen Ellen and the east side of Sonoma County, limited fire activity is concentrated in the hills around Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre said.

“It feels good to be kind of turning a corner,” Akre said, noting that flames in some hidden, remote areas would likely not be doused until heavy rains came.

But evacuations remained in place in and around Glen Ellen, which was hard hit, as well as in the Sonoma area, though sheriff’s officials reopened areas around part of the closure on Thursday night.

Akre and other public safety officials illustrated the potential dangers of fire-affected areas by recounting an incident Wednesday, when a 16-inch Douglas fir fell onto a fire engine, totaling it, though people nearby were uninjured.

Akre also cited a vegetation fire that was sparked when PG&E crews re-energized an electrical line.

Officials acknowledged public frustration with the time it is taking to ensure each burned-over neighborhood is safe for re-entry. They urged patience, given continued safety risks in many areas, as well as the long reconstruction period still to come.

The many challenges to re-entry include ensuring there are no electrical or gas-related hazards, weakened trees that could fall, concentrated toxics or flames, authorities said.

In addition, search and rescue crews with cadaver dogs are still sweeping some neighborhoods to ensure there are no unknown fire victims still to be found. Twenty-three fatalities already have been confirmed.

“We need to search every home,” Sonoma County sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick told the crowd at Santa Rosa High School.

There are still 37 people missing since the fires swept through Sonoma County beginning Oct. 8, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said in a public notice posted on his department’s Facebook page. Each neighborhood must be combed for bodies and the remains respectfully recovered before residents can return, he said.

But Giordano, stepping aside from law enforcement for a few moments, spoke to a larger need for grit and fortitude in the weeks, months and years ahead, as the gravity of the community’s losses sink in and the challenges of clean-up and rebuilding become clear.

“So please, take a deep breath, be patient and realize that life’s not going to be the same for those of you who have burned homes,” Giordano said. “Life’s not going to be the same for anybody in the county while we rebuild it. It’s a different world now, and this is what we’re going to have to deal with into the future.”

The California Department of Public Health said residents who return to fire-damaged neighborhoods must take precautions to avoid toxic materials like lead and heavy metals, chemicals and asbestos likely present in the ash of destroyed homes.

People can reduce exposure to toxins by wearing tight-fitting N95 or P100 respirator masks, sturdy gloves, long-sleeved shirts and long pants when cleaning up ash, the California Department of Public Health said. Persons who get ash on their skin should wash it off immediately. Wet ash can cause chemical burns, officials said.

All attempts should be made to avoid getting ash into the air, as well, by using water and a wet cloth or mop to clean dirty surfaces. Do not use brooms or otherwise sweep up dry ash, the health agency said. Also to be avoided are shop vacs or non-HEPA (high-efficiency) vacuums because they do not filter out small particles and end up expelling them back into the air in their exhaust, where people may inhale them.

Children should not be permitted to play in areas where ashes are being disturbed. Pets and toys should be cleaned of ash before children are exposed to them, health officials said.

The interactive Cal Fire map showing homes destroyed and damaged around the county is available online at calfire-forestry.maps.arcgis.com/apps/PublicInformation/index.html?appid=5bbcbed430ad45e5a38e6be155ef5fec.

The Sonoma County sheriff also has released drone footage of the devastated Coffey Park and Journey’s End neighborhoods. It can be found at www.sonomasheriff.org/tubbscomplexlnu-fire-imagery.

Staff Writer Bill Swindell contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.