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Firefighters increase containment of Kincade fire to 70%; evacuees return home

For the first time since the Kincade fire started Oct. 23, firefighters were able to stop the blaze from spreading before sunrise Friday, increasing containment to 70% by the end of the day.

The fire, which sparked in the vicinity of a malfunctioning PG&E transmission tower near the Geysers geothermal plant and prompted the largest mandatory evacuation in Sonoma County history, remained at 77,758 acres Friday night. It has destroyed 360 ?structures, including 174 ?homes. After a weekend of strong, gusty winds that increased the fire’s dangerous spread, officials said the calm weather over the last couple days has helped crews tackle the blaze.

“I think the worst is over,” said Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine. “We’re getting a better and better handle on it every day.”

Heine said the fire was “very quiet” Friday. Crews increased the containment line during the day on the far east side of the fire, near Napa and Lake counties, which remained the most challenging area for firefighters to tackle because of the hard-to-access terrain.

Four firefighters have been injured while battling the Kincade fire, and Cal Fire has yet to make a final determination on the cause of the blaze.

Progress on controlling the fire allowed about 773 ?residents from one of the mandatory evacuation zones to return home Friday, when the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office downgraded the order to a warning for the area north of Pine Flat Road, Dillingham Road, Socrates Mine Road and east of Highway 128 to the Lake County line, said spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia. The office also lifted more evacuation warnings for the areas of south Geyserville, Healdsburg and Fitch Mountain, Windsor, Larkfield and north of Santa Rosa.

Scott Seidman returned to his Freestone home Thursday after the evacuation order on west county was lifted. While he was a little frustrated his house didn’t regain power until midday Friday, he said he and his family were just happy to be home.

“Everybody has an anxiety that when they have to leave their home during a fire that they will come back to ashes, so we had that anxiety of course,” Seidman said. “We feel very lucky.”

As evacuees returned to their homes, Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Celeste Philip advised residents that burned remains of buildings and household hazardous waste, such as paint and cleaning products, could be dangerous. Philip said residents should not approach burned structures without protective equipment, including eyewear, gloves, long sleeves, pants and closed-toe footwear. Because of the risk, residents should not try to clean their property until further notice, Philip said.

While more people have been allowed to return to their homes over the last few days, about 5,015 Sonoma County residents still remained under evacuation orders Friday night.

“It’s a lengthy process,” Valencia said of allowing people to return to evacuated areas. “We understand people want to get home ... (and we’re) doing everything possible to make it happen.”

Meanwhile, PG&E restored power to all the remaining Sonoma County customers out from the planned outages over the last week, said spokeswoman Deanna Contreras. The back-to-back shut-offs were intended to reduce the risk of the utility’s equipment from sparking wildfires during dangerous weather conditions.

Another 1,400 customers, however, were still without power because they were in or near the Kincade fire zone, Contreras said. Not all of those customers were in Sonoma County - Contreras said some were in Middletown and Calistoga - and it still wasn’t clear Friday night when their power would be restored.

Crews worked to restore gas flow to homes and business in Sonoma County, which were also shut off as a safety precaution as firefighters tackled the Kincade fire. About 24,600 customers had their gas turned off, and 6,691 had it restored by 5 p.m. Friday, Contreras said. Customers who had their gas restored lived in or near Cloverdale, Forestville, Geyserville, Graton, Larkfield-Wikiup and Sebastpol. Contreras said PG&E workers will continue to reignite pilot lights in Windsor and Healdsburg on Saturday.

The roughly ?18,000 PG&E customers still without gas may remain in the cold over the weekend, as the North Bay is under a frost advisory. While temperatures are expected to warm a little over the next couple of days, some areas will still be below freezing, said David King, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. North Bay residents may also be affected by moderate air quality through the weekend caused by smoke from the Kincade fire, said Kristine Roselius, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

PG&E has partnered with St. Paul’s Church in Healdsburg to open a warming center for customers without gas, Contreras said.

The center opened at 5:30 ? p.m. Friday, and will remain open all day and night until everyone’s gas has been restored.

Victor Beltran is one of many Windsor residents who, after the town’s evacuation order was lifted, returned to a home without working gas. He was “frustrated” that he wasn’t able to take a warm shower, and said that many restaurants in town are closed because they don’t have gas either, so he has had to drive into Santa Rosa and Sebastopol for his meals.

Beltran was also disappointed when he came home to see that a tree had fallen on top of his truck. He needs his truck to transport tools to his construction jobs, and worried that he wouldn’t be able to afford to repair the damage.

Still, after staying at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building evacuation shelter for the past few days, Beltran said he was glad to be back in his own home.

With the progress on the Kincade fire and growing needs elsewhere, firefighters were being released Thursday and Friday to head home or help on fires burning in Southern California. Cal Fire reported 4,681 personnel remained Friday night, down from the peak of 5,245.

San Jose Fire Capt. Cleo Doss, who was tapped by Cal Fire to help as a spokesman for the Kincade fire, said the agency was no longer using very large air tankers because “they felt there was no need for that” now that the fire has been better contained. Doss said Cal Fire continued doing air attacks using its 15 helicopters.

Cal Fire still expects the fire to be fully contained by Nov. 7.

Even as residents felt relief that the worst of the fire appeared to be over, some worried about the possibility that new fires may spark over the next few weeks. King, the National Weather Service meteorologist, said that while there were no strong winds in the forecast for the next week or so, the air will still be very dry, and there was no rain expected any time soon.

“We are still anxious because we recognize that it is still fire season and good rains are still probably weeks away,” Seidman said.

Supervisor James Gore, who represents much of the area affected by the Kincade fire, said the people in his district have mixed emotions about what’s to come.

Many people in Healdsburg and Windsor were relieved the flames didn’t reach their towns. Gore said the firefighters “really did save” those neighborhoods.

At the same time, Gore said residents in less densely populated areas, including Alexander Valley and Knights Valley, were dealing with the very real possibility that they had lost their homes.

“There’s the highest high of saving our city and then the lowest low of ‘I lost everything,’?” Gore said. “So it’s a tale of two recoveries.”

Gore hoped Sonoma County residents remembered that many of their neighbors will need help and support as they coped with what they’d lost in the Kincade fire.

“I just want to remind all those amazing Sonoma Strong individuals that there’s a long recovery that’s going on back there,” Gore said. “We need them not to just post thoughts and prayers. We need them to show up with blood, sweat and tears.”

Staff Writer Randi Rossmann contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ChantelleHLee.

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