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A leg up on wildfires

The winds eased, some of the smoke began to clear and the forecast Monday offered a tantalizing chance of rain to firefighters trying to corral blazes that have laid waste to California wine country.

The improving weather and tightening containment of the flames were tempered by the first death from the firefighting effort — a driver who was killed when his truck overturned on a winding mountain road.

After days of gusts that fanned the fires, lighter winds offered a chance for crews to make greater gains, and thousands more people were allowed to go home.

Many of those who returned knew in advance whether their homes were standing or reduced to ash. Satellite images, aerial photos and news reports with detailed maps of entire neighbourhoods had given homeowners in populated areas a pretty clear idea of the fire's path. 

The return home was emotional even for those whose properties were spared.

"When we came up to check on it, we were amazed it was here," said Tom Beckman, who credited his neighbour's two sheep with chomping vegetation surrounding his home and keeping the fires at bay.

"All the trivial things we have to work on — cleaning up, replacing the stuff in the fridge and freezer — that's nothing compared to my friends who lost their homes," Beckman said.

The smell of smoke remained thick in the air and spread to the San Francisco area, but skies were clearer in some places.

In the historic main square of the wine and tourist town of Sonoma, a statue of the community's 19th century founder was draped with signs thanking firefighters who saved the town from disaster.

"The love in the air is thicker than the smoke," read a sign on the bench that displays the statue of Gen. Mariano Vallejo, which was wearing a face mask.

Although the weather was still hot and dry, the calmer winds and the possibility of rain later in the week should help crews tamp down the deadliest, most destructive cluster of blazes in California history.

Most of the people reported missing have been located, and authorities said many were false reports from people far away who could not get in touch with friends or relatives.

About 100 people remained unaccounted for. Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said he expects some of those will be found dead in burned-out homes.



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