VACAVILLE, Calif. — Crews aided by better weather and reinforcements with bulldozers made progress Tuesday penning in massive California wildfires that have killed at least seven people and burned nearly 1,300 homes and other buildings.
Firefighters in wine country north of San Francisco had cleared containment lines — used to prevent fires from spreading — around a quarter of blazes there that have scorched more than 550 square miles (1,424 square kilometers) and destroyed more than 930 buildings.
To the east of San Francisco, firefighters had created containment lines around 15% of a group of fires that has charred more than 568 square miles (1,471 square kilometers) and is now the third-largest in state history.
And to the south, officials said progress was made against a fire in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties that has grown to 123 square miles (318.5-square-kilometer), destroyed 330 structures and threatens another 25,000.
Helicopters dropped 200,000 gallons (over 757,000 litres) of water on the blaze Monday, making it “the best day yet,” said Mark Brunton, operations chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
“The past couple days we’ve seen significant progress in our firefight on this incident,” Brunton said. “The weather’s really cooperating with us.”
Temperatures have cooled in the region and lightning strikes that started many of the fires have stopped. Fire crews along with bulldozers were arriving from other states, but officials warned the danger was far from over and admonished residents to stay out of evacuated areas.
Six people who returned to the restricted area north of Santa Cruz to check on their properties were surprised by fire and had to be rescued, authorities said.
Looters have been warned they’ll be arrested, and some people have been taken into custody, including a man found with $5,000 in his car, authorities said. Detectives were also investigating seven reports of missing people.
Evacuees tempted to return to check on their homes should think again, fire officials said.
“It is highly dangerous in there still,” Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire deputy chief, said of the blaze north of Santa Cruz, adding that some old wooden bridges have failed but might appear to be safe.
An estimated 170,000 people remained under evacuation orders and tens of thousands of homes were still threatened from fires around the state.
On the outskirts of Vacaville, people were trickling back to see what remained of their homes. Bob Zupo’s house survived, unlike the homes of three neighbors. Zupo, 68, attributed his good fortune to “the grace of God.” All the land around his property burned. So did a barn he owned.
On Tuesday, Zupo hung a sign on his mailbox that said, “Thank You All” and put up an American flag, as he assessed the damage. “Fire doesn’t pick and choose, it just takes what it’s going to take,” he said.
The siege of wildfires in the state has been astonishing, especially since California’s peak fire season usually is during the hot, windy days of September and October.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said at this time last year, California had seen about 4,300 wildfires that burned about 88 square miles (227 square kilometers), while the toll so far this year is 7,000 fires and nearly 2,200 square miles (5,700 square kilometers).
“We are dealing with different climate conditions that are precipitating in fires the likes we haven’t seen in modern recorded history,” he said Monday.
The fires are blamed for at least seven deaths, among them 70-year-old Mary Hintemeyer, her boyfriend Leo McDermott and his son, Tom, said Hintemeyer’s son, Robert McNeal.
McNeal told KPIX-TV that he lost contact with his mother last week as the fires sped up. He said she had tried to go into town earlier that day but turned back at a roadblock where authorities said if she went through she wouldn’t be allowed back. She returned home to get her boyfriend, who was in a wheelchair.
Authorities found their remains among the ruins on the Napa County property the following day.
“Just get out, don’t wait,” McNeal told the TV station, urging people to follow evacuation orders. “If you think it’s going to be too much to get your sprinklers on before you get out of there, forget those too. Forget it. Get out. Just get out. It ain’t worth it.”
Authorities identified another victim as Tad Jones, 73. His body was found Sunday near his van in the remote Last Chance area of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Police had to use a helicopter to reach the roughly 40 off-the-grid homes at the end of a winding, steep dirt road.
The Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote about Jones in 2009 after he survived another fire. Jones was a Vietnam veteran who had not spoken since 1976 after he met the late silent monk Baba Hari Dass and went into the woods to practice silence, the Sentinel reported.
Associated Press writers John Antczak and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco and Aron Ranen in Healdsburg, California, contributed to this report.