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Natural disasters

Rescuers look for dozens missing in California wildfires as people begin returning to their homes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 6:18am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 6:18am

Search-and-rescue teams in Northern California combed through the debris of burned-out houses on Tuesday for dozens of people still missing in the state’s deadliest wildfires, which have killed at least 41 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

Herb Percy, allowed back into the Coffey Park section of Santa Rosa, where entire neighbourhoods were reduced to ashes, surveyed what little remained of his home.

“December would have been our 30th anniversary here,” he said.

Light winds on Tuesday helped 11,000 firefighters gain more control of the flames, which in the past week have consumed more than 245,000 acres (86,200 hectares) in the state – an area more than five times the size of Washington. The affected area includes Napa and Sonoma counties in California’s wine country.

“We’re in a far better position today than we were several days ago,” Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said in a phone interview on Tuesday, referring to the Napa Valley.

Most of the 1,863 people listed in missing-persons reports have turned up safe, including many evacuees who failed to alert authorities after fleeing their homes.

As of Tuesday, 65 people were listed as missing in Sonoma County, the sheriff’s office said. Napa County said it still had 15 people missing.

Tens of thousands of people who fled the flames in Sonoma County and elsewhere have been allowed to return home. About 34,000 were still displaced.

More evacuees hoped to return home on Tuesday, although officials said the death toll may rise with at least 80 people still missing.

The Tubbs fire around Calistoga was 82 per cent contained and the Atlas fire to the southeast was 77 per cent contained on Tuesday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the state’s firefighting agency.

Deadliest blaze in California history slowly being brought under control by firefighters

The Nuns Fire, located in Sonoma County and now the state’s largest blaze, was 68 per cent contained.

Fire officials, employing more than 960 fire engines, 30 air tankers and 73 helicopters, hoped the blazes would be fully contained by Friday. Precipitation is also expected to arrive later in the week, bringing relief from dry conditions.

Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, which had to evacuate last week, reopened on Tuesday morning, the Sonoma Sheriff’s Department said.

At least 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the wildfires that erupted a week ago.

The wildfires are California’s deadliest on record, surpassing the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, which had 29 deaths.

California’s famed wineries in Napa and Sonoma face painful recovery from wildfires

About 30 vintners sustained some fire damage to winemaking facilities, vineyards, tasting rooms or other assets, according to the industry group Napa Valley Vintners.

About 90 per cent of Napa’s grape harvest had been picked and escaped exposure to smoke that could have tainted the fruit.

Still, the toll taken on the region has thrown the wine industry into disarray. The group’s spokeswoman, Patsy McGaughy, said the 2017 Napa vintage would likely be smaller than previously expected.