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Firefighters make gains against overwhelming California flames

The death toll from the ferocious wildfires making their way across California has climbed to at least 32. With 8,000 firefighters deployed across wine country, containment numbers are up for several fires, but the high winds forecast for the weekend could blow new life into the already ferocious flames. Special correspondent Monica Lam of KQED reports on the progress and damage.

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    In California, the death toll from the massive wildfires has risen to at least 32, and that number could continue to climb. Officials say about 90,000 people have been forced to evacuate, and at least 3,500 homes and businesses have been reduced to ashes.

    From PBS station KQED in San Francisco, Monica Lam reports.


    The degree of destruction and death is unparalleled, whole neighborhoods reduced to rubble and ash.

    Still, a glimmer of hope, as officials say they have made gains on the ground.

  • BARRY BIERMANN, Fire Chief, Napa County:

    Great progress is being made here. The resources out there are doing an amazing job. They're tired. They're working hard. But we're making great progress on this incident.


    Napa Country Fire Chief Barry Biermann said containment numbers are up for several fires, but warned they aren't out of the woods yet. Winds are likely to return to heightened strength this weekend, what's known as red flag conditions, and could blow new life into the already ferocious flames.


    Today, the weather is cooperating, but we are going to back into red flag again. And that's going to be an issue that we will have to keep a close eye, with low humidities and potentially wind for the next couple days.


    A force of at least 9,000 firefighters has been deployed across California's Wine Country. Since igniting Sunday night, firefighters have been overwhelmed by the velocity of the flames.

  • TOM CIZONE, Firefighter:

    None of the usual resources we used were very effective. When you get hit with something you can't deal with, it's a humbling feeling. It makes you realize how helpless you really can be, even in a position of power.


    More than 15 wildfires spanning more than 300 square miles still burn.

  • GREG HUBBELL, Firefighter:

    You're amidst something that's heartbreaking, pretty much. So, that's kind of what it's been like.


    Yesterday, in the evacuated town of Calistoga, firefighters amongst the trees struggled to complete their one mission: contain the blaze.


    They're everywhere. You know, there's little pockets. There's parts that we just can't get to. There's parts — so, we're waiting for it. So, yesterday, all yesterday, we were prepping houses. And we thought we were going to be defending houses, but now I think we're transitioning into that defense mode now.


    Sonoma County has sustained the most damage so far. The Tubbs fire is responsible for more than 15 deaths, with 400 still reported missing.

    Some evacuees have fled to the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in the town of Petaluma.

    Sonia Diaz and her family arrived on Monday.

  • SONIA DIAZ, Evacuee:

    Our zone and our house is not under mandatory evacuation, but we decided to come because the smoke is really bad for our kids.


    The community has rallied around the grounds, donating numerous piles of supplies for evacuees in need.

    In addition, this emergency center boasts both mental and medical health services.

  • MICHELLE PATINO, Nurse, Santa Rosa Kaiser:

    I just started posting out on the app Nextdoor, Facebook, and before I knew it, believe it or not, the community of Petaluma came in with all these medical donations, and pretty much has built this up. This is all from the community of Petaluma.


    At a raceway in Sonoma County, wildfire evacuees set up tents and campers to wait out the flames.

    Hilda Napoles fled her home Wednesday with her family.

  • HILDA NAPOLES, Evacuee:

    I said, when you have to run, you have to run. No choice, with nothing. You have to leave faster. And you have to leave with nothing. You just have to save your life and your kids' life.


    The Napoles family have no idea whether or not their house is still standing.


    We're just kind of like scared and worried that our stuff will, like, burn in our houses. So, we're just kind of like worried


    As officials prepare for winds to pick up again over the weekend, and aggravate already dangerous fire conditions, some 190,000 acres have already been seared.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Monica Lam in Santa Rosa.

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