California ‘turned corner’ in battle against deadly wildfires

Fire crews battle a wildfire Saturday in Santa Rosa, California. Picture: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Fire crews battle a wildfire Saturday in Santa Rosa, California. Picture: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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California fire authorities said yesterday that they had turned a corner in battling several of the wildfires that have devastated wine country and other parts of the state over the past week.

Some counties were preparing to let more evacuees return to their homes amid improving weather.

The winds that have been fanning the deadliest and most destructive cluster of wildfires in Californian history 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 – and it’s probably a sign we’ve turned a corner on these fires,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“We’re starting to see fires with containment numbers in the 50 and 60 per cent, so we’re definitely getting the upper hand on these fires.”

The wildfires that erupted last weekend have killed at least 40 people and destroyed at least 5,700 homes and other structures.

As of yesterday, roughly 75,000 people were under evacuation orders, down from nearly 100,000 the day before.

The Sonoma County sheriff’s office also said yesterday it would start assessing evacuated areas, a first step toward allowing people back home.

Mendocino County said it expected to allow even more people home yesterday as well.

Some people were growing increasingly impatient to go back – at least to see whether their homes were still standing.

“We’re on pins and needles,” said Travis Oglesby, who evacuated from his home in Santa Rosa. “We’re hearing about looting.”

Douglas and Marian Taylor, accompanied by their two dogs, stood outside their Santa Rosa apartment complex on Saturday with a sign that read “end evacuation now”.

Their building at the edge of the cordoned-off evacuation zone was unharmed.

However, the couple said they are spending about $300 (£226) a day staying at a motel and eating out.

And they said that they wanted to return home because the fire does not appear to threaten their property.

Hundreds of people remain unaccounted for, though officials said they believed that they would locate most of them alive.

Most of the dead are believed to have died late on 8 October or early on 9 October, when the fires exploded and took people by surprise in the middle of the night. Most of the victims were elderly.

In all, 17 large fires still burned across the northern part of the state yesterday, with more than 10,000 firefighters attacking the flames using air tankers, helicopters and more than 1,000 fire engines.

The long and brutal 2017 wildfire season is also causing headaches for the state and federal agencies that have to pay for the army of ground crews and machinery required to fight them.

The federal government spent more than $2.7 billion (£2.03bn) on firefighting in its most recently finished budget year, a record that far surpassed the previous high point of $2.1bn (£1.58bn) set just two years ago.

In California, firefighting costs have already chewed through more than half of the state’s $469 million (£353m) emergency fund for big fires just three months in – and that does not include the costs of the recent catastrophic fires that have claimed dozens of lives and thousands of buildings.

California officials said on Friday that they expected the cost of fighting those fires would be hundreds of millions of dollars.

Montana also struggled to pay for firefighting this year, with costs approaching $400m (£301m) by late September.