Dozens Still Missing in Calif. Wildfires, More Evacuees Return Home

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) -
Smoke from a wildfire is seen near the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, California, Monday. (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

Northern California search-and-rescue teams on Tuesday will continue to comb through burned homes for dozens of people still missing in the state’s deadliest wildfires, which have killed at least 41 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

Lighter winds were expected, a condition that has helped 11,000 firefighters control the flames that have consumed more than 213,000 acres, including wine country’s Napa and Sonoma counties.

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

More evacuees hoped to return home on Tuesday, and officials said the death toll may rise, as 88 people remained unaccounted for in Sonoma County alone.

The Tubbs fire around Calistoga was 75-percent contained and the Atlas fire to the southeast was 70-percent contained on Monday night, said Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency. They hoped the blazes would be fully contained by Friday.

Tens of thousands of people who fled the flames in Sonoma County and elsewhere have been allowed to return home, with about 40,000 still displaced.

Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, which had to evacuate last week, was to reopen on Tuesday, NBC Bay Area reported.

Daniel Mufson, 74, a retired pharmaceutical executive and one of scores of Napa Valley residents who lost their homes in the fires, described his sense of bewilderment.

“Now we’re just trying to figure out what the next steps are. We’re staying with friends, and dealing with the issues of dealing with insurance companies and getting things cleaned up,” Mufson, president of community-activist coalition Napa Vision 2050, told Reuters.

At least 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the wildfires that erupted a week ago and had consumed an area larger than New York City. Entire neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa were reduced to ashes.

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

Most of the 1,863 people so far listed in missing-persons reports have turned up safe, including many evacuees who failed to alert authorities after fleeing their homes. As each day passed, hope dwindled for victims who were in the direct path of the flames, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said on Monday.

About 30 vintners sustained some fire damage to wine-making facilities, vineyards, tasting rooms or other assets, according to the group Napa Valley Vintners. But only about a half-dozen reported significant losses, spokeswoman Patsy McGaughy said.

Vineyards, which mainly occupy the valley floor, appear to have been largely unscathed as the fires in Napa County burned mainly on the hillsides, McGaughy said. About 90 percent 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, and McGaughy said the 2017 Napa vintage will likely be smaller than previously expected.

“This is a human tragedy, there are people who have lost their lives, lost their homes, lost their business,” McGaughy said, adding that Napa’s celebrated viniculture would recover.