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Firefighters Gain Ground On California Wildfires

A firefighter (center) and two onlookers watch a smoldering wildfire from a hilltop in Oakville, Calif., on Sunday.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
A firefighter (center) and two onlookers watch a smoldering wildfire from a hilltop in Oakville, Calif., on Sunday.

Updated at 3:45 p.m. ET

Fire crews were starting to gain the upper hand on numerous blazes in Northern California that have killed at least 41 people and destroyed thousands of homes, but officials warned that the deadliest wildfires in the state's history were far from extinguished.

The death toll rose Monday after "a private water tender driver assigned to the Nuns Fire tragically died in a vehicle rollover on Oakville Grande in Napa County," according to Cal Fire. The driver has not yet been publicly identified.

Hundreds of people have been listed as unaccounted for, but many of them have been located safely. In Sonoma County, Sheriff Rob Giordano said authorities have accounted for 1,560 of the more than 1,700 once listed as missing, according to AP.

With ferocious winds dying down and the fires contained in some areas, about a quarter of the nearly 100,000 people who had been ordered to flee have been allowed to return to their homes — or at least what is left of them.

Marking firefighters' progress, Cal Fire Deputy Chief Bret Gouvea said at a Sunday press briefing, "Things feel good in our gut as firefighters."

The Chronicle reports:

"Underscoring the progress, authorities in Napa County lifted all evacuation orders in Calistoga in the afternoon. State officials predicted they would fully contain, or surround, every active blaze in Sonoma County by Friday, and the region was even due for a bit of badly needed rain at the end of the week."

Even so, 40,000 people were still being told to stay away. Some 5,700 structures have been destroyed by the flames, according to California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

"This is my home. I'm going to come back without question," 56-year-old Howard Lasker, who returned Sunday with his daughter to view their torched house in Santa Rosa, told The Associated Press. "I have to rebuild. I want to rebuild."

In Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County seat, Mayor Chris Coursey told member station KQED he is grateful that firefighters may finally be gaining the upper hand on the fires. "We here in the city of Santa Rosa feel like we can take a breath. And we can start, instead of just worrying about the five minutes in front of our faces — that we're able to take a step back, look five days out, maybe even five weeks out," Coursey said.

"We've lost almost 5 percent of the housing stock in Santa Rosa," Coursey said Friday afternoon. "We're looking at $1.2 billion in damage in Santa Rosa alone. It's a huge hill we've got to climb."

One of those who are now homeless is Tracey Cooper, who gasped when she saw what was left of her house. "Everything's gone. I mean, everything," she told NPR's David Schaper.

A concrete foundation, some rock pillars from the garage, twisted and scorched metal and roof tiles are all that remain amid powdery gray and white ash.

"And just to see the devastation, it's something most people just don't see in their lifetime, thank God; it's — I mean, it's just unbelievable," Cooper said.

Ten miles northeast of Santa Rosa is the city of Calistoga, near where Sonoma wildland firefighter Steven Moore is stationed.

"We're pretty exhausted. It's pretty steep terrain," Moore told NPR's Eric Westervelt.

Nearly 11,000 firefighters are arrayed against 14 large fires — down from 21 last week — that have charred more than 200,000 acres, mostly in the counties of Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino.

The Tubbs Fire alone has burned through more than 36,000 acres and killed at least 18 people from Calistoga to Santa Rosa. It was 70 percent contained as of Monday afternoon, according to Cal Fire. The Atlas Fire engulfed an additional 51,000 acres, destroying homes and wineries northeast of the city of Napa, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. That fire was 68 percent contained.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.