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Firefighters Gain Ground On California Wildfires

A firefighter, center, and two onlookers watch a smoldering wildfire from a hilltop, on Sunday, in Oakville, Calif.

Fire crews were starting to gain the upper hand on numerous blazes in Northern California that have killed at least 40 people and destroyed thousands of homes, but officials warned that the deadliest wildfires in the state's history were far from extinguished.

With ferocious winds dying down and the fires contained in some areas, about a quarter of the nearly 100,000 people who had been ordered to flee have been allowed to return to their homes – or at least what is left of them.

Even so, 75,000 people were still being told to stay away.

"This is my home I'm going to come back without question," Howard Lasker, 56, who returned Sunday with his daughter to view their torched house in Santa Rosa, told The Associated Press. "I have to rebuild. I want to rebuild."

In Santa Rosa, the Sonoma county seat, Mayor Chris Coursey, tells member station KQED that he's grateful that the tide may finally be turning on the fires.

"We here in the city of Santa Rosa feel like we can take a breath. And we can start, instead of just worrying about the five minutes in front of our faces – that we're able to take a step back, look five days out, maybe even five weeks out," Coursey said.

KQED's Molly Peterson says Santa Rosa has so far lost 5 percent of its housing to the fires.

One of those who is now homeless is Tracey Cooper, who gasped when she saw what was left of Santa Rosa house.

"Everything's gone. I mean, everything," she tells NPR's David Schaper.

A concrete foundation, some rock pillars from the garage, twisted and scorched metal and roof tiles is all that remains amid powdery gray and white ash.

"And just to see the devastation, it's something most people just don't see in their lifetime, thank God, it's I mean, it's just unbelievable," Cooper says.

Ten miles northeast of Santa Rosa is the tourist city of Calistoga, near where Steven Moore, a Sonoma wildland firefighter, is stationed.

"We're pretty exhausted. It's pretty steep terrain," Moore tells NPR's Eric Westervelt.

Nearly 11,000 firefighters are arrayed against 15 fires – down from 21 last week.

Some 100,000 acres have been affected by the fires in the counties of Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino.

The Tubbs Fire alone burned through 45,000 acres and killed 18 people from Calistoga to Santa Rosa. It is now considered 60 percent contained. The Atlas Fire engulfed another 51,000 acres, destroying homes and wineries northeast of the city of Napa, The San Francisco Chronicle reports. That fire is 65 percent contained.

Marking the progress at a Sunday press briefing, Cal Fire Deputy Chief Bret Gouvea said "Things feel good in our gut as firefighters."

The Chronicle reports:

"Underscoring the progress, authorities in Napa County lifted all evacuation orders in Calistoga in the afternoon. State officials predicted they would fully contain, or surround, every active blaze in Sonoma County by Friday, and the region was even due for a bit of badly needed rain at the end of the week."

Hundreds were listed as unaccounted for, but many of them have been located safely. In Sonoma, Sheriff Rob Giordano said authorities have accounted for 1,560 of the more than 1,700 once listed as missing, according to The Associated Press.

But officials have said that the number of dead is likely to go up as recovery teams dig through the ruins.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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