SANTA ROSA, Calif. – Firefighters kept gaining on the California wildfires Monday with help from lighter winds that made it easier to attack the flames that have killed at last 40 people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.
After days of gusts that constantly fanned the fires, better weather offered a chance for crews to get the upper hand more than a week after the blazes started chewing through the state's celebrated wine country.
"The weather has not been in our favor over the past week in general, but we are still marching forward with our progress," said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Also Monday, a water truck driver died when his vehicle rolled over near one of the fires. No other information was available on the driver or the crash, which happened shortly before daybreak.
The smoky skies started to clear in some places, and thousands of people got the all-clear to return home. About 40,000 evacuees were still waiting for permission to go back to their communities, down from a high of 100,000 on Saturday.
"This is my home. I'm going to come back without question," said Howard Lasker, 56, who returned Sunday with his daughter to their torched house in Santa Rosa. "I have to rebuild. I want to rebuild."
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.
"Any sort of moisture is welcome at this point," said Scott Rowe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "In terms of fire, the weather outlook is looking to be improving."
He predicted a quarter-inch (0.6 centimeters) would fall late Thursday in Sonoma and Napa counties.
Hundreds of people remained unaccounted for, although authorities said many of them are probably safe but have not let anyone know. The number of people under evacuation orders was down to 75,000 from nearly 100,000 the day before.
In hard-hit Sonoma County, Sheriff Rob Giordano said authorities have located 1,560 of the more than 1,700 people once listed as missing. Many of those names were put on the list after people called from out of state to say they could not reach a friend or relative.
Authorities said they will not let people return home until it is safe and utilities are restored. Pacific Gas and Electric Company said it expects to restore power and gas to the area by late Monday.
Many evacuees grew increasingly impatient to go home — or at least find out whether their homes were still standing. Others were reluctant to go back or to look for another place to live.
Juan Hernandez, who escaped with his family from his apartment Oct. 9 before it burned down, still had his car packed and ready to go in case the fires flared up again and threatened his sister's house, where they have been staying in Santa Rosa.
"Every day we keep hearing sirens at night, alarms," Hernandez said. "We're scared. When you see the fire close to your house, you're scared."
At the Sonoma fairgrounds, evacuees watched the San Francisco 49ers play the Redskins on television, received treatment from a chiropractor and got free haircuts.
Michael Estrada, who owns a barber shop in neighboring Marin County but grew up in one of the Santa Rosa neighborhoods hit hard by the blazes, brought his combs, clippers and scissors and displayed his barbering license in case anyone doubted his credentials.
"I'm not saving lives," he said. "I'm just here to make somebody's day feel better, make them feel normal."
Lois Krier, 86, said it was hard to sleep on a cot in the shelter with people snoring and dogs barking through the night.
She and her husband, William Krier, 89, were eager to get home, but after being evacuated for a second time in a week Saturday, they didn't want to risk having to leave again.
"We're cautious," she said. "We want to be safe."
Nearly 11,000 firefighters were still battling 15 fires burning across a 100-mile swath of the state. The blazes have destroyed some 5,700 homes and other structures.
Those who were allowed back into gutted neighborhoods returned to assess the damage and, perhaps, see if anything was salvageable.
Jack Daniels recently completed a yearlong remodel of his Napa house near the Silverado Country Club and watched it go up in flames last week as he, his wife, 7-year-old grandson and two pugs backed out of the driveway.
His neighbors, Charles Rippey, 100, and his wife, Sara, 98, were the oldest victims identified so far in the wildfires.
Daniels, 74, a wine importer and exporter, said he lost everything left behind, including his wife's jewelry and 3,000 bottles of wine in his cellar.
"It's heartbreaking," the 74-year-old said. "This was going to be our last house. I guess we've got one more move. But we're fortunate. We got away. Most things can be replaced. The bank didn't burn down."