By OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California wildfires were slowly being corralled Friday as cooler, humid weather and reinforcements aided firefighters and tens of thousands of people were allowed back home after days of death and destruction.
In the past two days, evacuation orders were lifted for at least 50,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area and wine country, officials with the state fire agency, Cal Fire, said Thursday evening.
In heavily damaged areas, crews were working to restore electricity and water so more people could return to their homes, Santa Cruz County Chief Deputy Chris Clark said.
“I think we’re going to have good news,” he added.
Around the state, hundreds of wildfires — coming months earlier in the season than expected — have already killed at least seven people, burned more than 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers) and pushed firefighter resources to the breaking point. Two are among the largest wildfires in recent state history.
At their peak, some 170,000 people were under evacuation orders.
But a heat wave eased this week, and in the past few days cooler, more humid weather patterns have slowed the spread of three massive complexes of wildfires in the north.
In addition, personnel, aircraft and bulldozers have been arriving from other states and California National Guard troops have joined the fight, authorities said.
Evacuation orders for more than 20,000 people were lifted over the past 24 hours in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, where a massive blaze caused by lightning was 24% surrounded, fire officials announced.
Three people reported missing in evacuation zones had been found, Clark said.
The fire has burned at least 516 homes but the tally could rise. Inspection teams were struggling to get into remote areas because bridges were damaged and roads blocked by fallen trees and power lines, fire officials said.
In the eastern San Francisco Bay Area, a fire that has burned in seven counties gained a relatively modest amount of ground — less than 1.6 square miles (4.1 square kilometers) — and was 35% surrounded.
Parts of Solano County and Lake County, north of San Francisco, began allowing people back home on Thursday.
In the heart of wine country, evacuation orders in Napa and Sonoma counties were lifted Wednesday for about 35,000 people who had been told to leave after lightning ignited dozens of blazes more than a week ago.
Firefighters and utility workers were clearing areas for returning residents. Crews increased containment of the massive cluster of fires north of San Francisco to 35%. That fire complex, the site of five deaths, still threatened 30,500 homes and other buildings after destroying more than 1,000.
Cal Fire said there still was “extreme fire behavior” and portions of the three-pronged fire continued to advance in several directions.
In Napa County, Marcia Ritz was among about 10 people that fled flames by taking a pontoon boat to the middle of Lake Berryessa on Aug. 18 and waiting there for hours.
She returned to find her country store in Napa standing but much of the surrounding neighborhood, including the mobile home park where Ritz lived, was burned, the San Jose Mercury News reported.
Ritz may have to shut down her store.
“There is no customer base. There are maybe two houses remaining on the hill,” she said.
Even after the wildfires are contained, thousands of firefighters will have to remain on the firelines to douse smoldering timber and hot spots to prevent flareups, Cal Fire spokesman Dan Olson told the Mercury News.
“We’re dealing with large, 100-year-old redwoods, that once they start to burn, it takes a lot to suppress,” he said. “This isn’t something that will be resolved in days or even weeks.”
Associated Press writer John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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