(CNN) — While firefighters continue to battle the fires in Northern California, a number of evacuees are being allowed to head home. Some of them are discovering they’ve lost everything.
One of them was Janice Mathis, who found a heap of mangled metal, rocks and blackened trees in place of her three-bedroom, three-bath house.
But she considered herself lucky to be alive, she said.
“I’m realizing you don’t put your boots on and your gloves on and go sift through stuff,” Mathis told CNN affiliate KOVR. “There’s nothing to sift through.”
“The first thing we think of is we’re fortunate,” she said.
Mathis’ home in Napa is one of thousands reduced to smoldering ruins since the wildfires began October 8.
With more than a dozen fires still burning, 11,000 firefighters are not only battling the blazes, but painstakingly combing the rubble in incinerated neighborhoods, looking for victims.
At least 40 people have died and more than 200 people are reported missing. And those who made it out alive are returning home to a heartbreaking new reality.
- An estimated 217,000 acres have burned, according to a Sunday update from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). An estimated 5,700 structures have been destroyed.
- Approximately 75,000 people have been evacuated, Cal Fire said.
- The 50,000-plus Atlas fire in Napa and Solano counties was 56% contained as of Sunday — up from 3% three days earlier.
- The Nuns fire in Sonoma County had consumed more than 47,000 acres and was 25% contained.
- Sonoma County was assessing damage on Sunday, the sheriff’s office said, to determine if evacuated residents could soon return home.
- The city of Napa lifted its evacuation orders Sunday, according to a tweet from the city’s verified Twitter page.
‘Devastation is just unbelievable’
The outbreak of wildfires has become one of the deadliest in the state history, according to Cal Fire.
Gov. Jerry Brown, and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, toured areas hit by fires Saturday.
“This is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest tragedy that California has ever faced,” Brown said. “The devastation is just unbelievable, is a horror that no one could have imagined.”
Brown announced Friday the state secured federal aid to assist residents who suffered losses and additional funding to remove debris and take emergency protective measures.
“We are not out of the woods yet, there’s still fires burning. There’s still danger,” Brown said.
In Santa Rosa, Penny Wright tearfully walked through the debris of where her home once stood. With burned cars, concrete and twisted metal scattered everywhere, it was hard to tell which one was her house.
“All your life savings and work for all the years is gone,” she said. “We lived here 10 years, I never thought that Santa Rosa would have a fire like this and we would lose everything.”
Ernie Chapman’s home was gone, but he said his dogs saved his life by waking him up during the fire.
“I’m glad to be here. I’m glad to have my dogs. You can replace this stuff but life’s most important,” the Santa Rosa resident said.
New fire threatens Santa Rosa
Several thousand more people were ordered Saturday to evacuate from Santa Rosa as a new wildfire threatened the area.
Mandatory evacuations were issued when winds picked up and the new blaze erupted along state Highway 12 between two other wildfires that have been burning for days.
A large part of Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 people roughly 50 miles northwest of San Francisco, was evacuated earlier when wildfires began.
The more than a dozen wildfires have burned for days, but authorities said they had a “handle on the fire” and firefighters were making progress.
“We will continue to aggressively attack and keep (the fire) contained,” said Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann in a Sunday press conference. “But we are making a tremendous progress out there.”
The county is switching gears and turning its focus towards recovery, said Napa County spokeswoman Belia Ramos.
In a press conference Sunday afternoon, officials said they were “optimistic” about the progress being made against the fires in Sonoma County, where 22 people have died. “Things feel good in our gut as firefighters,” said Bret Gouvea, deputy chief of Cal Fire, noting authorities are remaining cautious.
Authorities are also planning for evacuees to return home eventually.
“Our top priority as I said all along, as soon as we evacuate people, is to start looking when we can repopulate,” Gouvea said.
“Over the next 24 hours you’ll see a lot of repopulation plans coming out,” he said, adding that authorities will “phase those repopulations in” so residents don’t all attempt to return at once, causing traffic congestion and possibly safety hazards.
Shooting survivor loses home to wildfires
All through Northern California, residents are starting to return home after the fires wiped out entire neighborhoods. Michaella Flores was in Las Vegas at the Route 91 Harvest Festival when a gunman opened fire on the crowd, killing 58 and wounding hundreds. She returned to Santa Rosa unharmed but days later, the fires destroyed home.
The former firefighter and paramedic has seen her fair share of emergency situations. But she says the past couple of weeks have made her start seeing things from a different perspective.
“It’s just a very helpless feeling,” she said. “I just thought, well, I’ve been in these situations before. It shouldn’t be a big deal.”
“But when it’s happening to you, it’s a whole different realm.”
Flores said she still hasn’t fully come to terms with what she’s faced this month.
“I don’t sleep. I haven’t had any time to process any of this,” she said.