Firefighters close in on full containment as Sonoma County turns toward recovery
Firefighters tightened their grip Tuesday around a series of deadly blazes still burning across the North Bay as more people forced to evacuate were allowed back to their homes and the regional focus shifted to recovery.
Nine days after firestorms ambushed sleeping residents, driving tens of thousands from their homes across the region, 36,000 of those displaced by fires in Sonoma County have been allowed to return to their neighborhoods, including those in Oakmont and Larkfield-Wikiup, the Sonoma Valley and outlying areas of Geyserville.
It was a measure of the success of firefighting efforts across Napa and Sonoma counties, where separate infernos since Oct. 8 have charred almost 103,000 acres.
The deadliest blaze, the Tubbs fire, which killed at least 22 people as it spread from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, had blackened 36,432 acres and was 87 percent contained, while the Nuns fire straddling Sonoma and Napa counties had burned 52,894 and was 78 percent contained.
Cal Fire Incident Commander Bret Gouvea said “our confidence is increasing daily.” Rain is forecast Thursday and full containment of all the fires is expected Friday.
“Our continued priority is re-population,” he said at a Tuesday news conference. “As much as we can, as quickly as we can.”
Still, crews continued to battle flames on Mount St. Helena in Napa County, and in the hills east of Sonoma Valley and outside of Geyserville in Sonoma County.
The Oakmont fire continued to grow into Tuesday afternoon with crews battling the flames in rough country off Pythian Road and Adobe Canyon Road outside of Kenwood. It was at 1,029 acres with 27 percent containment.
“We are very concerned with this fire,” said Jerry Fernandez, Cal Fire spokesman, a mile from the fire line. “It is very active.”
Homes are scattered throughout the mountains and wind had picked up at higher elevations, Fernandez said.
White smoke billowed up from Adobe Canyon as helicopters dropped water on active fire zones at noon. A 747 supertanker remained on standby to drop flame retardant on the blaze, Fernandez said.
The Oakmont fire was sparked from the Nuns fire Saturday morning forcing the evacuation of many Rincon Valley residents.
On the Tubbs fire, crews took to steep and rocky terrain on Mount St. Helena to battle its northern spread, said Cal Fire Section Chief Steve Crawford.
“(We) had some really aggressive firefighters who took the initiative to create a great plan,” Crawford said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
The steep slopes didn’t allow crews to use a bulldozer to create a containment line in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, Crawford said. The fire has burned a large section of the park in both Napa and Sonoma counties, according to Cal Fire maps.
All told, fires have charred nearly a tenth of Sonoma County’s 1 million acres. Local officials estimated the number of structures lost at about 6,800. Cal Fire put the figure at 5,017.
Countywide damage was estimated at $3 billion.
Of the about 1,900 initial missing persons reports related to the fires in Sonoma County, just 53 remain outstanding, Sheriff Rob Giordano said. He expects the number to drop further.
Giordano also reported multiple arrests related to potential looting, but he believes all suspects were caught before they were able to steal anything. One suspect entered an area in a decommissioned fire truck and another pretended to be a security guard, he said.
Since the evacuation orders came more than a week ago, 35 people have been arrested related to looting, including 17 arrests by sheriff’s deputies and 18 by Santa Rosa police.
All mandatory evacuation orders were lifted Monday in Mendocino County as firefighters were able to make gains battling the Redwood Valley fire, said Lt. Shannon Barney, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.
Eight people lost their lives in the blaze. Redwood Valley residents who’ve been identified as victims include Kai Shepherd, 14, Irma Elsie Bowman, 88, and her husband, Roy Howard Bowman, 87.
Napa County’s largest blaze, the Atlas fire, was at 51,064 acres and 80 percent containment Tuesday, according to Cal Fire.
Napa County officials identified the victim of a water tender crash Monday as a volunteer firefighter from Missouri named Garrett Paiz.
Paiz, 38, died early Monday morning while trying to negotiate winding Oakville Grade into Napa County.
The CHP said he was on his way in darkness to refill a large water tanker being used to battle the Nuns fire, which has spread north from Sonoma County into neighboring Napa County.
The tanker went off the road, broke through a guardrail and plunged about 20 feet into a ravine not far from the bottom of the grade and Highway 29, authorities said.