Terrifying bodycam footage shows hellish early hours of California wildfires

Last Updated Oct 14, 2017 9:25 PM EDT

SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- Even as an unprecedented toll of death and destruction kept mounting, California communities were getting glimpses of heroism, humanity and hope as wildfires burned around them.

Firefighters made major gains against most of the blazes on Friday, a lucky few of the nearly 100,000 people who fled their homes got to return, and examples of charity were everywhere, along with a sign that began popping up in more and more places: "The love in the air is thicker than the smoke."

Astonishing video released from the fire's hellish first night showed the soldiers' courage of the deputies and firefighters working amid the flames, CBS San Francisco reports.

"Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!" the unidentified Sonoma County deputy can be heard yelling in the body-camera video released by the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office as he tries to get hesitant drivers to speed out of a town that was already being devoured by flames.

He is shown lifting a disabled woman out of her wheelchair and into an SUV to rush her out of town. And he drives through walls of flame looking for more people to help.

"And that's just one person," Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said after showing the video at a news conference.

For hours overnight, 15 Sonoma County deputies tried to get people to safety, dodging flying embers and encroaching flames in the process.

The tragic bottom line remained. Fire officials and local sheriffs increased the death toll late Saturday night to 40. Meanwhile there have been 5,700 homes and businesses destroyed. Those numbers make this the most deadly and destructive series of fires California has ever seen.

In all, 17 large fires still burned across the northern part of the state, with more than 9,000 firefighters attacking the flames using air tankers, helicopters and more than 1,000 fire engines.

"The emergency is not over, and we continue to work at it, but we are seeing some great progress," said the state's emergency operations director, Mark Ghilarducci. 

Two of the largest fires in Napa and Sonoma counties were at least 25 percent contained by Friday, which marked "significant progress," said state fire Chief Ken Pimlott. But he cautioned that crews would face more gusty winds, low humidity and higher temperatures. Those conditions were expected to take hold later Friday and persist into the weekend. 

Over the past 24 hours, crews arrived from Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, North and South Carolina, Oregon and Arizona. Other teams came from as far away as Canada and Australia. 

The influx of outside help offered critical relief to firefighters who have been working with little rest since the blazes started. 

"It's like pulling teeth to get firefighters and law enforcement to disengage from what they are doing out there," said Barry Biermann, Napa chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "They are truly passionate about what they are doing to help the public, but resources are coming in. That's why you are seeing the progress we're making."