Thousands of weary Sonoma County residents made their way home Monday as control grew over the state’s most destructive and deadly wildfires, which continue to burn a week later in the rugged hills east of Santa Rosa and high above Geyserville.
Mandatory evacuation orders were lifted for Annadel Heights in Santa Rosa, as well as parts of Bennett Valley, the communities of Boyes Hot Springs and Kenwood and parts of Sonoma, allowing people who had been kept out for days to stream back into their unburned neighborhoods.
Where blocks have been leveled, fire or safety issues remain and thousands more residents are being kept out — closures that authorities said could last for many days if not weeks.
At the same time, an ongoing battle in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park overlooking the scenic Valley of the Moon prevented residents of the Oakmont retirement community and parts of Rincon Valley from returning home. Many expressed frustration at not knowing the fate of their homes and being unable to return as the disaster continued into a second week.
“I just want to make sure my house is safe,” said Will Chubb, 73, who was turned away in four attempts to get to his Oak Vista Drive house. “I’d at least like to go in and get several things I need, one of which is my eye medication.”
Firefighters made progress on what remained of more than a dozen fires that broke out Oct. 8, burning more than 101,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties, and killing 41 people across four counties, including 22 in Sonoma.
The latest victim was a 38-year-old water tank driver, contracted for firefighting, who was killed Monday morning in a crash on the Oakville grade above Napa Valley. His name was not released.
Up to 88 people remain missing in Sonoma County, where officials estimate 6,700 homes and businesses, valued at $3 billion, have been reduced to ashes.
The most devastating blaze, the Tubbs fire, which raced from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, leveling large swaths of Fountaingrove, Larkfield-Wikiup and the northwest neighborhood of Coffey Park, had charred 36,432 acres and was more than 75 percent contained.
Other fires still burning included the Nuns fire in the Sonoma Valley, which consumed 51,512 acres and was 53 percent contained, and the Pocket fire near Geyserville which burned about 12,430 and was 45 percent contained.
Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley fire, which killed eight people and destroyed 436 homes, had charred almost 36,00 acre and was 55 percent corralled.
The Oakmont fire, which started Saturday, had burned 1,029 acres east of Highway 12 and was just 16 percent contained. It was merging with the Nuns fire, Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox said.
Cox said Oakmont residents would likely remain under evacuation orders until firefighters got a better handle on the blaze. Officials were still targeting Friday as the date when all fires would be under control.
Air tankers and helicopters flew multiple runs in the area Monday, he said.
“That’s been the priority today, to button up the northeast corner of Sugarloaf mountain,” Cox said. “It’s steep with heavy fuels and some inaccessible areas.”
As they worked, officials tallied the damage.
In Santa Rosa, 2,907 residential structures were destroyed, including about 1,300 in the Coffey Park neighborhood, said David Guhin, director of planning and economic development. Most were single-family homes.
More than 86 commercial units — from large stores like Kmart to small office suites — were destroyed, comprising more than 400,000 square feet of commercial space lost.
The initial damage assessment was done Tuesday and Wednesday by city building and code inspectors driving each street where there was a loss and taking notes about each property. A more thorough survey is underway by a Cal Fire damage inspection team, Guhin said.
City staff also are conducting a larger review of infrastructure, from roads and streetlights to sewer stations and storm drains.
Separately, Sonoma County officials released an initial estimate showing 3,819 structures were destroyed with $2 billion in losses. Altogether, the fires have caused more than $3 billion in losses countywide, officials confirmed.
At the peak of the fires, more than 100,000 people were estimated to have been displaced. They filled Santa Rosa shelters and fled town. Many were allowed back for the first time Monday.
The homecoming was hampered by confusion about just what areas were open. Officials warned electronic alerts should be read entirely. Some residents appeared to be reading only the headline that Bennett Valley’s evacuations had been lifted but failed to click on the alert to see the specifics, officials said.
“People are not really paying attention,” said Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder, who sent several officers to the east Santa Rosa area to help residents sort out their situation. “They don’t read the details. Bennett Valley is open but not within city limits, farther out.”
About 14,500 PG&E customers in Sonoma County remained without power Monday, down from 17,700 the day before. The utility was working to restore gas to about 15,000 customers in Sonoma and Napa counties, according to a spokeswoman. She did not have a figure for Sonoma County alone.
PG&E has said it expects to have power restored to “essentially all” electric customers by late Monday night and gas should be back by Wednesday night, pending approval from Cal Fire.
Santa Rosa city schools and Sonoma County Superior Court remained closed.
The county’s lone operational trauma center, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, said its doctors, nurses and staff handled nearly twice the volume of patients in the past week while suffering extensive personal losses. Santa Rosa’s two other large hospitals, Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Santa Rosa, were evacuated and shuttered last Monday as the fire burned into the city. Sutter plans to reopen at 7 a.m. today.
In the past week, Memorial Hospital treated 400 patients for respiratory problems and 60 burn cases. Five serious burn victims, including one with burns over 65 percent of his body, were transferred to Bay Area hospitals.
Memorial staff also delivered 36 babies — three times the normal number of births — while Petaluma Valley Hospital, also part of the Saint Joseph Health system, delivered 14 babies.
More than 130 healthcare workers including 51 doctors lost their homes. Hospital officials said the displacement of such a large segment of medical providers will complicate challenges already posed by the regional housing shortage.
Registered nurse Cambria Reese, 25, who lived with her parents in the Mark West Spring area, was among those who lost their homes. She was on the night shift at Memorial when she smelled smoke and read about the fire on the internet. It would be days and many patients later before she learned the fate of her home.
“It was nerve-wracking,” she said Monday. “But I had peace that God was in control. That’s what got me through the night.”
Throughout the day Monday, helicopters few numerous runs into the Oakmont fire, dropping water on the blaze just north of Hood Mountain and Sugarloaf parks.
Plumes of smoke from fire on ridges just northwest of Sugarloaf were visible from Highway 12 looking east. The northern end of Sonoma Valley from Glen Ellen to Santa Rosa’s Skyhawk neighborhood was blanketed in haze that obscured the mountain’s profile.
Some flames on the southern portion of what was the Oakmont fire are being allowed to burn out, said Capt. Rick Crawford of the Los Angeles Fire Department and Cal Fire spokesman.
Crawford said much of the air attack is being concentrated on the north end of the blaze in Hood Mountain, which started Friday evening. Crawford said 39 helicopters and 7 air tankers were in use Monday.
“We’re hitting it hard and we’re hitting it fast,” said Crawford, adding that minimal ground crews were being used because of the rugged terrain.
Crews had completed a fire line that ran from near Kenwood to the southeast edge of the burn-line of the Tubbs fire, which carved its path farther north. Meanwhile, Crawford said up to 35 fire engines were stationed along Highway 12 to protect structures and homes in Kenwood, Oakmont and east Santa Rosa.
Later Monday, at the Safeway on Highway 12 and Calistoga Road, Crawford told residents how the firefight was progressing. Many asked when they would be able to return to Rincon Valley, homes east of Calistoga Road, Skyhawk, Mountain Hawk and Oakmont.
He told them Cal Fire wanted to make sure there’s no chance fire would again threaten the northern Sonoma Valley.
Josh Dermake, 20, of Monte Verde Drive off Calistoga Road, said he, his parents and siblings have been displaced from their Rincon Valley home for a week. Some family members scattered as far as Redding.
Dermake, who works at Safeway, said he’s eager to return to his normal life.
“I’m ready to go home,” he said.
Chris Bloyd, who stayed with friends in Windsor with his two children while they were displaced from their home off Old Redwood Highway, said Monday that their apartment had power but no gas. That meant no hot showers. Also, some windows had been left open, so the home smelled of smoke, Bloyd said.
Still, “It felt good to be home finally.”