SANTA ROSA (CBS/AP) — Pacific Gas and Electric Company officials announced they expect to restore power to all its customers in the fire zones by late Monday.
The company said in a statement Sunday that power has been restored to more than 92 percent of homes and businesses that lost power during the wildfires, but about 21,000 electric customers remain without power.
After the wildfires broke, PG&E turned off gas service to about 42,000 customers in the affected areas of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Nearly 900 workers, from PG&E and from other energy companies, have been working to relight pilot lights in areas where it’s safe to do so.
The company says safety work on gas pipelines should be completely by the morning. It wasn’t immediately known when service would be fully restored.
With the winds dying down, earlier Sunday fire officials said they have apparently “turned a corner” against the wildfires that have devastated California wine country and other parts of the state over the past week, and thousands of people got the all-clear to return home.
While the danger from the deadliest, most destructive cluster of blazes in California history was far from over, the smoky skies started to clear in some places.
“A week ago this started as a nightmare, and the day we dreamed of has arrived,” Napa County Supervisor Belia Ramos said.
People were being allowed to go back home in areas no longer in harm’s way, and the number of those under evacuation orders was down to 75,000 from nearly 100,000 the day before.
Fire crews were able to gain ground because the winds that had fanned the flames 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,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who noted that some of the fires were 50 percent or more contained. “It’s probably a sign we’ve turned a corner on these fires.”
The blazes were blamed for at least 40 deaths and destroyed some 5,700 homes and other structures. The death toll could climb as searchers dig through the ruins for people listed as missing. Hundreds were unaccounted for, though authorities said many of them are probably safe but haven’t let anyone know.
In hard-hit Sonoma County, Sheriff Rob Giordano said authorities have located 1,560 of the more than 1,700 once listed as missing. Many of those names were put on the list after people called from out of state to say they couldn’t reach a friend or relative.
Sonoma County officials said they will not let people return home until it is safe and utilities are restored. Crews have been working around the clock to connect water and power, in some cases putting up new poles next to smoldering trees, the sheriff said.
Many evacuees grew increasingly impatient to go home — or at least find out whether their homes were spared. Others were reluctant to go back or to look for another place to live.
Juan Hernandez, who escaped with his family from his apartment Oct. 9 before it burned down, still had his car packed and ready to go in case the fires flared up again and threatened his sister’s house, where they have been staying in Santa Rosa.
“Every day we keep hearing sirens at night, alarms,” Hernandez said. “We’re scared. When you see the fire close to your house, you’re scared.”
Evacuation orders were lifted for the city of Calistoga, the Napa Valley city of 5,000 known for its mud baths, mineral spas and wine tastings. The city was cleared out Wednesday as winds shifted, but homes and businesses were spared.
The Solano County Sheriff’s office announced at around 2 p.m. that mandatory evacuation areas in Solano County would be reopened to residents with proof of residency from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Only residents will be allowed past road closures during this time. All previous road closures will remain in place for the general public.
The Twin Sisters area remains without power. Twin Sisters Road will remain closed at Suisun Valley Road to all non-residents until power can be restored.
With the exception of Twin Sisters Road, all other Solano County Road closures will reopen to the general public at 6 p.m..
At the Sonoma fairgrounds, evacuees watched the San Francisco 49ers play the Redskins on television, received treatment from a chiropractor and got free haircuts.
Michael Estrada, who owns a barber shop in neighboring Marin County but grew up in one of the Santa Rosa neighborhoods hit hard by the blazes, brought his combs, clippers and scissors and displayed his barbering license in case anyone doubted his credentials.
“I’m not saving lives,” he said. “I’m just here to make somebody’s day feel better, make them feel normal.”
Lois Krier, 86, said it was hard to sleep on a cot in the shelter with people snoring and dogs barking through the night.
She and her husband, William Krier, 89, were anxious to get home, but after being evacuated for a second time in a week Saturday, they didn’t want to risk having to leave again.
“We’re cautious,” she said. “We want to be safe.”
Nearly 11,000 firefighters were still battling 15 fires burning across a 100-mile swath of the state.
In the wooded mountains east of Santa Rosa, where a mandatory evacuation remained in place, a large plume of white smoke rose high in the sky as firefighters tried to prevent the fire from burning into a retirement community and advancing onto the floor of Sonoma Valley, known for its wineries.
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Five new bodies were recovered Saturday to bring the total number of dead to 40 with more than 200 people still missing and unaccounted for. The victims were grandmothers, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts.
At emotional religious services Sunday those who have been killed were remembered with tears, prayers and heavy hearts. Many also paused to be thankful even if they had lost their homes.
“Our home is gone, but you know what? My family got out,” Janine Marsden told KPIX. “They got out.”
Homes were destroyed near the picturesque town of Sonoma Saturday but firefighters were able to save the historic Buena Visa Winery and several other landmarks from damage.
Late Saturday night, firefighters were battling to keep the Nuns-Partrick Complex fire’s advance near Sonoma from destroying a vital transmission cell tower that was a key component of Cal Fire’s communication system.
Meanwhile, in Mendocino County — 70 miles north of California’s fabled wine country — some residents felt ignored as they dealt with their own catastrophic wildfires.
“We have been hit just as hard as anyone,” said Sonya Campbell, who lost her house to the fires. “I don’t get why we aren’t getting any attention.”
Major Northern California Wildfires (Source: Cal Fire)
As of Sunday 8:00 p.m. PT
Nuns/Norrbom/Pressley/Adobe/Partrick Fires – 48,627 acres – 40% contained – Hwy 12, N of Glen Ellen, Kenwood
Pocket Fire – 11,889 acres, 30% contained – Off Pocket Ranch Rd and Ridge Ranch Rd, Geyserville
Oakmont Fire – 575 acres, 15 % contained – Near Oakmont
SONOMA / NAPA COUNTY
Tubbs Fire – 44,881 acres, 60% % contained – Between Santa Rosa and Calistoga
Sulphur Fire – 2,207 acres, 70% contained – Off Hwy 20, Sulphur Bank Road, Clearlake Oaks
Redwood/Potter Fires – 35,000 acres, 30% contained – N of Hwy 20, W of Mendocino Nat’l Forest
Cherokee Fire – 8,417 acres, 90% contained – Off Cherokee Road and Zonalea Lane, Oroville
La Porte Fire – 6,151 acres, 80% contained – La Porte Rd. and Oro Bangor Hwy, Bangor
Cascade Fire – 9,989 acres, 87% contained – Cascade Wy & Marysville Rd, N of Collins Lake
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