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Thousands may return home as California firefight progresses

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Firefighters making progress in their fight to put out massive and deadly wildfires in Northern California were working on plans Thursday to repopulate more evacuated areas after thousands of evacuated people were allowed to return home.

Cooler weather and higher humidity, along with an influx of equipment and firefighters, continued to help hard-pressed crews fighting some of the largest fires in recent state history, burning in and around the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We've had a lot of good success," Mark Brunton, a state fire official at a blaze in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties south of San Francisco, said early Thursday.

In the heart of wine country north of San Francisco, evacuation orders in Napa and Sonoma counties were lifted Wednesday for about 35,000 people who had been told to leave after lightning ignited dozens of blazes last week.

Firefighters and utility workers were clearing areas for returning residents after crews increased containment — the creation of fire breaks to prevent wildfires from spreading more — of the massive cluster of fires north of San Francisco to about 33 percent.

More people could be allowed to return home in the next two days in Sonoma and Solano counties, said Sean Kavanaugh, a chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.

Getting people back home is a priority but “we have to (be) very diligent and we have to make sure that the (containment) lines are any good, that we can get people home safely,” he said.

However, the fire also jumped a highway and threatened homes in neighboring Yolo County near the community of Rumsey, prompting new evacuations on Wednesday.

That fire, the site of at least five deaths, still threatened 30,500 homes and other buildings after destroying more than 1,000.

Two of the dead were identified Wednesday as Douglas Mai, 82, and Leon Bone, 64, both of Vacaville. They died on Aug. 19.

Bone was nearly blind, couldn’t drive and didn’t have a phone, family members and neighbors told KNTV-TV.

“He was probably taken by complete surprise,” said his cousin, Daniel Bone.

Bone had lived on the property his entire life and refused to move when his parents died, his cousin said.

“He was happy there and that’s the only place he wanted to be,” he said.

The fire in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties was 21% contained and authorities lifted an evacuation order for the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Firefighters would continue to burn out buffer zones to enlarge containment lines while an “infrastructure group" was working to reopen roads, get rid of dangerous trees and restore utilities, Cal Fire said.

The fire's activity had slowed but “deep-rooted heat still remains in the bottom of the steep, inaccessible drainages," the agency warned.

Hundreds of homes and other structures have been destroyed or damaged in that fire.

With residents eager to return home, authorities cautioned that assessments were continuing and a property not currently listed on a county website as damaged or destroyed may yet show up on that list.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chris Clark also sought to reassure people that looters wouldn't take advantage when areas are reopened.

“Someone had mentioned, ‘Is it going to be a foot race between myself and some thief to my house?' and that’s not the case," he said.

The number of unresolved missing persons reports in Santa Cruz County was down to two, he noted.

Since Aug. 15, hundreds of fires around the state have killed at least seven people and burned some 1,500 homes.

The massive fires — coming much earlier in the season than expected — have pushed firefighters to the breaking point. Gov. Gavin Newsom said more than 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers) have already burned this year.

However, personnel, bulldozers, aircraft and other equipment have been arriving from other states. Cal Fire officials also said 1,800 members of the California National Guard who are trained to fight fires will join efforts throughout the state, with 250 being sent to wine country. ___

Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles and Don Thompson in Sacramento also contributed to this report.

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