SANTA ROSA, Calif. – The winds eased, some of the smoke began to clear and the forecast Monday offered a tantalizing chance of rain to firefighters trying to corral the blazes that have laid waste to the nation’s most celebrated wine-making region.
The improving weather and tightening containment of the flames were tempered by the first death from the firefighting effort – a driver who was killed when his truck overturned on a winding mountain road.
After days of wind gusts that constantly fanned the fires, lighter wind offered a chance for crews to make greater gains, and thousands more people were allowed to go home more than a week after the blazes that have killed more than 40 people began.
Many of those who returned knew in advance whether their homes were standing or reduced to ash. Satellite images, aerial photos and news reports with detailed maps of entire neighborhoods had given homeowners in populated areas a pretty clear idea of the fire’s path. Some had seen the flames coming as they fled. Some families in rural areas had to wait until they laid eyes on their property.
The return home was emotional even for those whose properties were spared.
“When we came up to check on it, we were amazed it was here,” said Tom Beckman, who credited his neighbor’s two sheep with chomping vegetation surrounding his home and keeping the fires at bay.
“All the trivial things we have to work on – cleaning up, replacing the stuff in the fridge and freezer – that’s nothing compared to my friends who lost their homes,” Beckman said.
The smell of smoke remained thick in the air and spread to the San Francisco area, but skies were clearer in some places.
The truck driver, who had been delivering water to the fire lines, crashed before dawn Monday in Napa County on a roadway that climbs from vineyards into the mountains. No other details were available about the accident, which was under investigation, said Mike Wilson, a fire spokesman.
In the historic main square of the wine and tourist town of Sonoma, a statue of the community’s 19th century founder was draped with signs thanking firefighters who have saved the town from disaster.
“The love in the air is thicker than the smoke,” read a sign on the bench that displays the statue of Gen. Mariano Vallejo, which was wearing a face mask.
Although the weather was still hot and dry, the calmer winds and the possibility of rain later in the week should help crews tamp down the deadliest, most destructive cluster of blazes in California history.
“Any sort of moisture is welcome at this point,” said Scott Rowe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “In terms of fire, the weather outlook is looking to be improving.”
A fraction of an inch is predicted to fall late Thursday in Sonoma and Napa counties, though fire officials noted that if showers bring more wind than moisture, it could spell trouble for firefighters.
Crews continued to battle flames that have crossed a mountain from Sonoma County to Napa County. Three helicopters repeatedly dipped water buckets into a reservoir and made drops to stop flames from crawling downhill toward historic wineries in the Napa Valley.
Most of the people reported missing have been located, and authorities said many were false reports from people far away who could not get in touch with friends or relatives.
About 100 people remained unaccounted for. Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said he expects some of those will be found dead in burned-out homes.
Before they let people return to view the damage to their homes, authorities want to search thoroughly for remains and make sure the area is safe – a process that could take weeks, Giordano said.
About 40,000 evacuees were still waiting for permission to go back to their communities, down from a high of 100,000 on Saturday.
Those whose homes were still intact had mixed emotions.
Kim Batchelder surveyed what remained of an office behind his house. Windows were broken, and the place reeked of smoke. But his house was still standing.
“On one side we want to celebrate,” he said. “But our hearts are crushed for all the people who lost their homes.”
Roosevelt Ellerbe, 74, and his wife, Vicki Gould Ellerbe, 66, returned to their undamaged home in the Larkfield-Wikiup neighborhood near Santa Rosa with a sense of purpose.
The refrigerator, which was off after the power went out, had a stench and needed a thorough cleaning. They needed to figure out when natural gas service would be restored.
The biggest sense was relief that they did not have to compete with others to find another home.
“Thank god,” Vicki Ellerbe said. “We don’t have to try to find a new place to live with thousands of other people out there.”
Melley reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Ellen Knickmeyer in Sonoma, Brian Skoloff in Napa and Janie Har and Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco contributed to this report.