SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Thousands of people in California returned home Wednesday as cooler weather and an influx of aid helped firefighters gain ground and lift evacuation orders prompted by some of the largest wildfires in state history.
Highlighting the unusually early fire season in the state accustomed to blazes, Gov. Gavin Newsom said more than 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers) have already burned this year.
In the heart of wine country, evacuation orders in Napa and Sonoma counties were lifted for about 35,000 people who had been told to leave after lightning ignited dozens of blazes last week. Officials were also working to open up evacuated areas to the south, where more fires burned.
Firefighters and utility workers were clearing areas for returning residents after crews increased containment of the massive cluster of fires north of San Francisco to about a third. More people could be allowed to return home in the next two days in Sonoma and Solano counties, said Sean Kavanaugh, a chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Getting people back home is a priority but “we have to (be) very diligent and we have to make sure that the (containment) lines are any good, that we can get people home safely,” he said.
The fires slowed at lower altitudes as a morning marine layer drawn by intense heat on land brought cooler temperatures and higher humidity. The cooler air, however, didn’t reach higher forest and rural areas full of heavy timber and brush.
Amid the good news were sobering developments.
A fire in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties south of San Francisco was 19% contained, but officials increased the number of buildings destroyed to more than 530. Santa Cruz County officials reported that a woman who hadn’t been heard from since Monday was found dead at home, apparently due to natural causes. They also were looking for an evacuee missing since he told a friend he wanted to sneak back into a fire area.
Billy See, incident commander on that fire, urged displaced residents to be patient.
“When the smoke starts to clear, all the residents get very restless about trying to get back in and wanting to know when the evacuation orders and warnings will be lifted," See said.
Authorities were working on a plan for people to return after they make sure conditions are safe and water service and electrical power are available, he said.
The massive fires — coming much earlier in the season than expected — have pushed firefighters to the breaking point as they dealt with complications from the coronavirus pandemic and a lack of inmate crews who assist firefighters.
Cal Fire officials said 1,800 members of the California National Guard who are trained to fight fires will join their efforts throughout the state, with 250 being sent to wine country.
Since Aug. 15, hundreds of fires have killed at least seven people, burned nearly 1,500 homes and other buildings, and prompted evacuation orders for about 170,000.
David Serna, 49, a firefighter with the Presidio of Monterey Fire Department, was battling a fire in that county when his rented home in Santa Cruz County burned to the ground.
“I wanted to get up to the house and see what was left. Got up there and nothing. It was all gone,” Serna told KTVU-TV.
He and his wife found a metal heart-shaped decoration from their wedding day.
“All the years that I fought fires and seeing this type of destruction in other places,” Serna said. “But when it hits that close to home, it becomes almost unbelievable.”
In Vacaville, between San Francisco and Sacramento, 76-year-old Art Thomas said he found only ashes and melted metal at the site of the home he built with his own hands in a rural area where he had lived for 32 years.
“Possessions dating back to when I was a kid were all in the house, everything is gone,” Thomas said. “Between sad, crying, laughing — every emotion is there.”
He said he had left with his wife, two dogs and a pair of shorts and tennis shoes.
With limited crews to tackle fires on the ground, California has been relying more on bulldozers, aircraft and firefighters from other states and the federal government, said Daniel Berlant, chief of wildfire planning and engineering for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
California has scrambled in recent years to field enough prison fire crews as their numbers dwindled while the state released lower-level inmates. Thousands more were released early as the state responded to the coronavirus pandemic.
A dozen inmate firefighting camps that had been forced to shut down in June for two-week quarantines because of the coronavirus are back in operation but the total of 43 camps are operating at about 40% of capacity, said corrections department spokesman Aaron Francis.
Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles and Don Thompson in Sacramento also contributed to this report.