Thousands May Go Home as California Firefight Progresses

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Firefighters doubled down on efforts to surround massive and deadly wildfires in Northern California even as thousands of people were allowed to return home.

Cooler weather and higher humidity, along with an influx of equipment and firefighters, helped hard-pressed crews to gain ground Wednesday on some of the largest fires in recent state history, burning in and around the San Francisco Bay Area.

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.

However, the fire also jumped a highway and threatened homes in neighboring Yolo County near the community of Rumsey, prompting new evacuations.

That fire, the site of at least five deaths, still threatened some 30,500 homes and other buildings after destroying more than 1,000.

Two of the dead were identified Wednesday as Douglas Mai, 82, and Leon Bone, 64, both of Vacaville. They died on Aug. 19.

Bone was nearly blind, couldn't drive and didn't have a phone, family members and neighbors told KNTV-TV.

“He was probably taken by complete surprise,” said his cousin, Daniel Bone.

Bone had lived on the property his entire life and refused to move when his parents died, his cousin said.

“He was happy there and that's the only place he wanted to be,” he said.

A fire in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties south of San Francisco was 21% contained and authorities lifted an evacuation order for the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Firefighters would continue to burn out buffer zones to enlarge containment lines while an “infrastructure group" was working to reopen roads, get rid of dangerous trees and restore utilities, said a statement from Cal Fire, the state fire agency.

The fire's activity had slowed but “deep-rooted heat still remains in the bottom of the steep, inaccessible drainages," the agency warned.

As firefighters were able to inspect damage, officials increased the number of homes destroyed to 408.

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.

Authorities were working on a plan for evacuees to return home but they want to make sure conditions are safe and water service and electrical power are available, said Billy See, Cal Fire incident commander.

Since Aug. 15, hundreds of fires around the state have killed at least seven people and burned some 1,500 homes.

The massive fires — coming much earlier in the season than expected — have pushed firefighters to the breaking point. Gov. Gavin Newsom said more than 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers) have already burned this year.

However, personnel, bulldozers, aircraft and other equipment have been arriving from other states. Cal Fire officials also said 1,800 members of the California National Guard who are trained to fight fires will join efforts throughout the state, with 250 being sent to wine country.