The death toll from California’s wildfires rose to 40 on Sunday but firefighters reported progress in battling the flames. Thousands of evacuees were gradually being allowed to return home.
The most populous US state regularly faces late-summer fires. But the blazes that have burned more than 217,500 acres (about 88,090 hectares) this month, devastating the winemaking areas of Napa and Sonoma, proved the deadliest in the state’s history.
“Sadly, the death toll has risen to 40 people,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said on its website. .
Cal Fire said 22 of the victims died in Napa and Sonoma counties, just north of San Francisco.
The agency separately reported “good progress” against the 15 major fires now burning, a drop from 16.
“As progress has been made on several fronts, many evacuations have been able to be lifted. As of Sunday morning, nearly 75,000 people remain evacuated,” Cal Fire said. A total of 100,000 people had been forced from their homes.
“Winds across northern California have been fairly light this morning,” Cal Fire said, although it said gusty winds prevailed in the state’s south.
Almost 11,000 firefighters from various states are in action against the California blazes.
At 2pm (2100 GMT), mandatory evacuation orders for the city of Calistoga were lifted, Cal Fire said.
And in the Santa Rosa neighbourhood of Coffey Park, some residents who were evacuated started to come back to their homes on Sunday, though the evacuation order had not been lifted everywhere yet.
Returning resident Tammy Key said firefighters stopped the blaze close to her home, but that many of her neighbours were not so lucky.
“Every one of my friends who live anywhere close by here, that we’ve lived 29 years, they are homeless. And none of them can find places to live, none of them,” Key said.
“Two friends from the area — a 98-year-old man and his wife, 92 — “lived there for 60 years and they’re homeless,” said Key.
“It’s just so devastating to think of living here without all of our neighbours … We don’t know what’s going to happen, but I hope people rebuild and come back.”
Dan Warren, another returnee, said he hopes restrictions will be lifted to allow more people to come home.
“We just got our electricity turned back on, we’re kind of hoping they can raise the restrictions around here so people can get back in here to their homes,” he said.
All evacuation orders were lifted Sunday in California as firefighters battling a massive wildfire near Los Angeles said they had contained 60 percent of the blaze.