VACAVILLE, Calif. – Thousands of people in California returned home Wednesday as cooler weather and an influx of aid helped firefighters gain ground and lift evacuation orders prompted by some of the largest wildfires in state history.
Highlighting the unusually early fire season in the state accustomed to blazes, Gov. Gavin Newsom said more than 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers) have already burned this year.
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.
The fires slowed at lower altitudes as a morning marine layer drawn by intense heat on land brought cooler temperatures and higher humidity. The cooler air, however, didn’t reach higher forest and rural areas full of heavy timber and brush.
Amid the good news were sobering developments.
A wine country fire jumped a highway, prompting evacuation orders for a portion of Yolo County. That fire, the site of at least five deaths, was 33% contained but 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.
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.
However, 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.
Leigh-Anne Lehrman and her teenage daughters left their home in the Santa Cruz mountains a day before the blaze started after a power outage left them without a phone signal or internet connection. They packed clothes and toiletries for what they thought would be a few days away from home.
“Thankfully we took our dogs and my daughter's bird with us and my girls thought of taking my jewelry box,” she said. Their neighbor, a volunteer firefighter, told them their home burned down and the only thing left is the chimney.
“After we left, a friend grabbed a box of photos but other than that we lost everything,” Lehrman added.
She said her ex-husband also lost his home in the area. In 2017, a blaze destroyed the home of Lehrman's father and step-mother in Sonoma County.
“My girls lost both of their homes and they had already lost their grandpa’s home, literally every home they have ever known is now gone,” Lehrman said.
Billy See, incident commander on that fire burning in San Mateo and Santa Cruz, urged displaced residents to be patient.
“When the smoke starts to clear, all the residents get very restless about trying to get back in and wanting to know when the evacuation orders and warnings will be lifted," See said.
Authorities were working on a plan for people to return after they make sure conditions are safe and water service and electrical power are available, he said.
The massive fires — coming much earlier in the season than expected — have pushed firefighters to the breaking point as they dealt with complications from the coronavirus pandemic and a lack of inmate crews who assist firefighters.
With limited crews to tackle fires on the ground, California has been relying more on bulldozers, aircraft and firefighters from other states and the federal government, said Daniel Berlant, chief of wildfire planning and engineering for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
Cal Fire officials said 1,800 members of the California National Guard who are trained to fight fires will join their efforts throughout the state, with 250 being sent to wine country.
Since Aug. 15, hundreds of fires have killed at least seven people, burned nearly 1,500 homes and other buildings, and prompted evacuation orders for about 170,000.
David Serna, 49, a firefighter with the Presidio of Monterey Fire Department, was battling a fire in that county when his rented home in Santa Cruz County burned to the ground.
“I wanted to get up to the house and see what was left. Got up there and nothing. It was all gone,” Serna told KTVU-TV.
He and his wife found a metal heart-shaped decoration from their wedding day.
“All the years that I fought fires and seeing this type of destruction in other places,” Serna said. “But when it hits that close to home, it becomes almost unbelievable.”
Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles and Don Thompson in Sacramento also contributed to this report.