SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) — Fire crews were able to take advantage of reduced winds Wednesday afternoon, raising containment of the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County to 45 percent by evening.

The large fire that has been burning for nearly a week only grew a few hundred acres to 76,825 acres total.

As everybody is probably well aware since 24 hours ago when we were last here, we’ve made some pretty significant progress on the fire,” said Cal Fire Division Chief Jonathan Cox. “The winds that we were talking about yesterday did not materialize to the extremes we were fearful of. That gave us a big opportunity to increase that containment overnight and again today.”

Cox said that a total of 266 structures have now been confirmed destroyed by the Kincade Fire with 133 of those being residences. A total of 47 structures were damaged with 32 of those structures being homes.

Cox said Cal Fire felt crews had turned a corner for the better on the fire, which was a main reason why evacuation orders were being downgraded earlier Wednesday.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday afternoon announced evacuation orders for Windsor, Healdsburg and other areas in connection with the Kincade Fire had been downgraded to warnings.

Evacuation orders that were in place for all of Windsor and Healdsburg and the remaining still evacuated area of Santa Rosa were downgraded to an evacuation warning with the announcement.

The downgrade will allow an estimated 100,000 people displaced by the Kincade Fire to return to their homes.

Additionally, the still evacuated areas of Geyserville west of Highway 128, the northern part of Dry Creek Valley west of Highway 101 and south of Westside Road at Mill Creek Road, Sebastopol and south of River Road and the west county and coast have been downgraded to an evacuation warning.

All of the burn areas, which total nearly 77,000 acres, are still closed.

Residents will now be allowed to return home now at their own risk, but should remain aware and alert of the dangers still presented by the Kincade Fire. Many of these areas do not have power or natural gas due to the PG&E power shutoff.

Brooke Ross with Hotel Trio in Healdsburg said Wednesday they are ready to welcome first responders and anyone who needs a place to sleep.

“No power until last night, so cold showers and beds, but beats the alternative. I’m ready to get life bac kto normal. Sonoma Strong,” Ross said.

Healdsburg mayor David Hagele got emotional when asked if it was time for residents to come home.

“Time to come home and people are coming in now. My family gets to come home, too,” he said tearfully.

Residents of properties that are close to the still closed burn area will need to show authorities identification if passing through a checkpoint to reach their home.  Only residents will be allowed through the following checkpoints:

  • River Road and Highway 128
  • Highway 128 and Geysers Road
  • Highway 128 and Pine Flat Road
  • Highway 128 and Castelli Lane
  • Limerick Lane at Los Amigos Road
  • Chalk Hill Road at Pleasant Avenue
  • Faught Road at Shiloh Ridge Road
  • Mark West Springs Road at Cross Creek Road
  • Petrified Forest Road at Porter Creek Road
  • Petrified Forest Road at Franz Valley Road
  • Toyon Drive at Buckeye Trail
  • Highway 128 at Machado Road
  • Faught Road at Carriage Lane

Authorities recommended that residents stay home for the day once they arrive due to the traffic expected in the area. Residents should remain alert in case fire conditions change and require a new evacuation order. Authorities will use the hi-lo sirens to signal a new evacuation order that needs to be followed immediately.

Additional details on the updated evacuation warnings for the area can be found here.

Earlier Wednesday morning, a high wind advisory was cancelled for the North Bay hills, a hopeful sign that the nearly 5,000 firefighters battling the Kincade Fire can gain an even stronger foothold on the blaze that has grown to 76,825 acres and destroyed 94 homes.

Cal Fire said early Wednesday containment had grown to 30 percent overnight — a number that could grow significantly as winds calm during the day. Gusts did hit 50-55 mph on nearby peaks, but the fire grew by less than 1,000 acres.

Cal Fire spokesman Robert Foxworthy called overnight firefight a “huge success.”

As daybreak approached, winds began calming, particularly along the heavily populated 101 corridor.

“It is similar to the conditions on Monday,” National Weather Service forecaster Ryan Walburn told strike team leaders at their Wednesday morning briefing. “Watch for the switching winds and be aware those low humidities.”

Red Flag Warning conditions remained in place for the fire zone because humidity levels had dropped to as low as 10 percent.

“Fuel moistures are critical,” Cal Fire Analyst Jonathan Pangburn told strike team leaders at their Wednesday morning briefing. “Dead fuel moistures are at near record levels…So spotting (danger of spot fires) remains really high.”

He also urged firefighters for their safety to keep an eye our for ‘fire weakened trees…they can drop at any moment.”

On Tuesday afternoon, a spot fire just outside Windsor reignited in an area firefighters thought they had knocked down. The hot spot led to the fire burning the Leap Now Transformation Learning Center. Tucked away on its own, the center was spared over the weekend, but not on Tuesday.

“Obviously, we can’t catch them all. It’s really hard to see. Any time the wind kicks back up that creates an opportunity for new spot fires to show themselves,” said Cal Fire spokesperson Rhett Pratt.

Fire crews from Oregon arrived Tuesday to battle the blaze — about 225 firefighters with nearly a hundred vehicles.

“We come help California and we’ve needed California to help us in the past,” Oregon Battalion Chief Cross said. “The idea is that we come down, work our butts off for the community of Santa Rosa, and then we go home.”

Nearly 156,000 people remained under evacuation orders in Sonoma County including the entire towns of Geyserville, Windsor and Healdsburg. Thousands filled evacuations centers from Petaluma to San Francisco.

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