SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) - Crews fought their way across rugged, steep terrain on Tuesday in a push to gain full control of the deadliest wildfires in California history, as search-and-rescue teams picked through an ashy moonscape of destroyed homes looking for victims.
Though a dozen major blazes were still burning across the region, where 5,700 homes and businesses, some of them wineries, have been gutted, fire officials said they were gaining confidence they had finally gained the upper hand against the flames.
“There are still some concerns that if the west winds come up or we get some erratic winds they could push our lines, but as of right now we’re looking pretty good,” Steve Crawford, a fire operations chief, told reporters at a briefing in Sonoma County in the heart of California’s celebrated wine country.
At the same time, teams of searchers were moving house to house through neighbourhoods where little was left standing, picking through ash and rubble to recover the bodies of those who did not make it out in time.
Already 41 people have been confirmed killed in the fires, which erupted last week and were driven by dry, hot winds into Northern California communities, giving residents little or no chance to escape.
Law enforcement officials said 63 people remained missing or unaccounted for in Sonoma and Napa counties.
Most of the over 1,900 people listed in missing-persons reports have turned up safe, including evacuees who failed to alert authorities after fleeing their homes, but authorities still fear they may find more charred bodies as they move into previously inaccessible areas.
Tens of thousands of people remained displaced. Many would return to find nothing left, leaving them to hastily make alternative plans for shelter.
Kevin Klotter, who owns Valley Quail Vineyard in Mendocino County, said his home and two barns were burned to the ground on his 6.5-acre (2.63-hectare) property, but that he had managed to harvest 22 tons of grapes before the fire fame.
“Miraculously, the vineyard survived,” Klotter said, adding that his insurance company was paying for his family to stay in a motel in nearby Ukiah.
As for the long term, he said, he and his wife Bree would buy a recreational vehicle to live in while they rebuild at estimated cost of $700,000.
Fire officials said investigators were working to determine the cause of each blaze.
Light winds on Tuesday helped a small army of 11,000 firefighters gain more control of the flames, which have blackened more than 245,000 acres (86,200 hectares), an area more than five times the size of Washington, D.C.
The Tubbs fire near the community of Calistoga was 82 percent contained as of Tuesday afternoon and the Atlas fire to the southeast was 77 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the state’s firefighting agency.
The Nuns Fire, located in Sonoma County and now the state’s largest blaze, was 68 percent contained.
Fire officials, employing more than 960 fire engines, 30 air tankers and 73 helicopters, hoped the blazes would be fully contained by Friday.
Rain was also forecast for later in the week, bringing relief from dry conditions, although fire officials said that a storm could also stir up unfavourable winds.
Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, which had to evacuate last week, reopened on Tuesday morning, the Sonoma Sheriff’s Department said.
The wildfires are California’s deadliest on record, surpassing the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, which had 29 deaths.
About 30 vintners sustained some fire damage to wine-making facilities, vineyards, tasting rooms or other assets, according to the industry group Napa Valley Vintners.
About 90 percent of Napa’s grape harvest had been picked and escaped exposure to smoke that could have tainted the fruit.
Still, the toll taken on the region has thrown the wine industry into disarray. The group’s spokeswoman, Patsy McGaughy, said the 2017 Napa vintage would likely be smaller than previously expected.
Reporting by Jim Christie in Santa Rosa, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Chris Kenning in Chicago and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Peter Cooney and G Crosse