Firefighters Gain Ground On Wildfires Raging Across California

Oct 16, 2017
Originally published on October 16, 2017 8:13 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The winds in northern California remained mostly calm over the weekend, allowing firefighters to finally get the upper hand in the battle against at least 15 wildfires. Here is Cal Fire Incident Commander Bret Gouvea.

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BRET GOUVEA: We're feeling optimistic. We're turning the corner. Things feel good in our gut as firefighters.

GREENE: The fast-moving fires are the deadliest in California's history, killing at least 40 people. More than 200 people remain missing. Nearly 100,000 were evacuated from their homes. And some are just now beginning to see what, if anything, is left of them, as NPR's David Schaper reports from Santa Rosa.

TRACEY COOPER: You can make a left here.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Tracey Cooper (ph) has known since just a couple of hours after she and her two children left it in the middle of the night a week ago that her home in the Fountain Grove area of Santa Rosa burned to the ground. But this is the first time she has seen the widespread destruction in her neighborhood in person.

COOPER: Wow.

CARLA HEIBERT: Oh, my God, Tracey.

SCHAPER: As we turn into her neighborhood with friend Carla Hiebert (ph) in the backseat, every home around us is reduced to rubble and a powdery gray and white ash. Cooper is taken aback.

COOPER: This is just unbelievable. Oh, my God.

HEIBERT: Oh, God.

COOPER: No, it's just unbelievable. It's really hard to look at.

SCHAPER: We pull up to what was Tracy Cooper's house.

COOPER: OK. Wow.

SCHAPER: She gets out and stands for a few minutes in stunned silence. Then she says...

COOPER: We loved this house. It's just a beautiful place in a beautiful neighborhood.

SCHAPER: Some of the things here are recognizable - the metal pole and rim from the basketball hoop laying down in the driveway, the metal frame of the trampoline out back. And in what was the inside of the house...

COOPER: Bathtubs. Look, you can see there's the furnace over there. You can see the washer and dryer barely. You can make out what everything is. But it's just literally blown to pieces - I mean, completely blown to pieces.

SCHAPER: Cooper finds a few ceramic cups and bowls and other trinkets, as well as a few family heirlooms. But most of the things here that didn't burn up are shattered into pieces. It's hard to say if anything will be salvageable. Tracey Cooper has been anxious for this moment to see what remains of her house, as are thousands of other residents whose homes may have burned up here in Santa Rosa and elsewhere in Sonoma and Napa counties. Cal Fire estimates close to 6,000 structures have been destroyed by the fires. But for much of the past week, as strong winds pushed the flames in every direction, and the fires burned out of control, authorities were focused on getting people out of harm's way, not allowing people back in. Now with firefighters making progress in containing the fires, that's beginning to change.

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CHRIS COURSEY: Today, finally, is a day where at least we here in the city of Santa Rosa feel like we can take a breath.

SCHAPER: Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey.

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COURSEY: Instead of just worrying about 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. We'll be looking five years out.

SCHAPER: That means getting people who evacuated from unburned areas back into their homes in the next several days. But Coursey says city officials are also starting to plan how to remove debris and how to rebuild. But allowing residents back into those areas that burned to the ground may still take some time, as authorities say some areas are still unsafe and as crews continue to search for the remains of those who didn't make it out. David Schaper, NPR News, Santa Rosa, Calif.

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