California firefighters say they’re gaining the upper hand

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) — With the winds dying down, fire officials said Sunday they were finally getting the upper hand against the wildfires that have devastated California wine country and other parts of the state over the past week, and thousands of people got the all-clear to return home.

While the danger from the deadliest, most destructive cluster of blazes in California history was far from over, the smoky skies started to clear in some places.

“A week ago this started as a nightmare, and the day we dreamed of has arrived,” Napa County Supervisor Belia Ramos said.

People were being allowed to return home in areas no longer in harm’s way, and the number of those under evacuation orders was down to 75,000 from nearly 100,000 the day before.

Fire crews were able to gain ground because the winds that fanned the flames did not kick up overnight as much as feared.

“Conditions have drastically changed from just 24 hours ago, and that is definitely a very good sign,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who noted that some of the fires were 50 percent or more contained. “It’s probably a sign we’ve turned a corner on these fires.”

The blazes were blamed for at least 40 deaths and destroyed some 5,700 homes and other structures. The death toll could climb as searchers dig through the ruins for people listed as missing. Hundreds were unaccounted for, though authorities said many of them are probably safe but haven’t let anyone know.

Many evacuees grew increasingly impatient to go home — or at least find out whether their homes were spared. Others were reluctant to go back or to look for another place to live.

Juan Hernandez, who escaped with his family from his apartment Oct. 9 before it burned down, still had his car packed and ready to go in case the fires flared up again and threatened his sister’s house, where they have been staying in Santa Rosa.

“Every day we keep hearing sirens at night, alarms,” Hernandez said. “We’re scared. When you see the fire close to your house, you’re scared.”

At the Sonoma fairgrounds, evacuees watched the San Francisco 49ers play the Redskins on television, received treatment from a chiropractor and got free haircuts.

Michael Estrada, who owns a barber shop in neighboring Marin County but grew up in one of the Santa Rosa neighborhoods hit hard by the blazes, brought his combs, clippers and scissors and displayed his barbering license in case anyone doubted his credentials.

“I’m not saving lives,” he said. “I’m just here to make somebody’s day feel better, make them feel normal.”

Lois Krier, 86, said it was hard to sleep on a cot in the shelter with people snoring and dogs barking through the night.

She and her husband, William Krier, 89, were anxious to get home, but after being evacuated for a second time in a week Saturday, they didn’t want to risk having to leave again.

“We’re cautious,” she said. “We want to be safe.”

Nearly 11,000 firefighters were still battling the 15 fires burning across a 100-mile swath of the state.

In the wooded hills east of Santa Rosa, where a mandatory evacuation remained in place, firefighters made a stand along Highway 12 to keep the fire from burning a retirement community and advancing onto the floor of Sonoma Valley, known for its wineries.

Houses that had benefited from repeated helicopter water drops were still standing as clouds of smoke rose from surrounding ridges. A deer crossed the highway from a burned-out area and wandered into a vineyard not reached by the flames.

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