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Firefighters Slow Kincade Fire Growth To A Crawl; Evacuees Emotional Homecomings

WINDSOR (CBS SF) -- An army of more than 5,000 firefighters from across California and the West took advantage of calm winds overnight to all but halt the fiery onslaught of the massive Kincade Fire, increasing containment of the blaze to 60 percent.

The fire, which ignited near a Pacific Gas & Electric's transmission tower last Wednesday, has destroyed 282 structures including 141 homes and consumed 76,865 acres. Four firefighters have been injured. There have no fatalities among civilians or firefighters.

Meanwhile, the residents of several evacuated communities were able to finally return to their homes late Wednesday and early Thursday after spending days in evacuation centers from nearby Petaluma to Marin County to San Francisco.

Calfire spokesman Mitch Matlow said as of Thursday morning of the 186,000 residents initially ordered to leave their homes, only 6,000 remained under evacuation orders.

"The people are our No.1 priority," Matlow said. "Property comes second. So for us to put 180,000 people back in their homes, that makes us feel real good, warm and fuzzy."

As Windsor residents returned home, they were greeted by neighbors holding up welcome signs and cheering. Among the returnees was Cole Smith, who talked to KPIX 5 while standing in front of his family's home that was undamaged by the flames. But around his neighborhood were charred bushes and singed trees -- leftovers from the fierce fight.

"Watching on the livestream I thought for sure my house was gone," he said. "I knew we had great firefighters out here but when something like that happens - a real natural disaster -- there's not a lot people can do...They (the firefighters) somehow pulled off a miracle here."

Sonoma County Fire Marshall Cyndi Foreman said the fight to save the Cole family home and others in the neighborhood was intense.

"This was a dark, black, smoke filled neighborhood with fire in all these backyards," she told KPIX 5. "This is on some levels, as emotional for us to be able to come back here and welcome them home."

For the first time in nearly seven days a smile beamed across Healdsburg Mayor David Hagele's face. Evacuees were also returning to his idyllic Wine Country town.

"It's time to come home," he said holding back tears. "It's pretty cool...My family gets to come home."

While the past week has caused plenty of stress and loss in Sonoma County, many are saying the Kincade Fire has shown a marked improvement in the region's ability to respond to a wildfire.

On Oct. 8, 2017, when flames erupted across Napa and Sonoma counties, most of those who ran for their lives that night had little to no warning.

"There is a big difference between October '17 and today, and the biggest difference is we had some warning," says Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick.

"We had really good predictions from Cal Fire and the weather folks to tell us where it was going to be going. On top of that, we now have the alert and warning systems in place that we didn't have in 2017. We were able to warn these people hours in advance."

Essick says two years of effort paid off over the last week. In the early hours it was better information, earlier warnings and practiced evacuation plans. Once people were safely out of the way, the cavalry could deploy in full.

"It was like going to war," Essick says of the Cal Fire response. "You couldn't go more than a few hundred feet without having a fire truck and a water tender. Those men and women were ready for battle."

Cal Fire, who now prepositions crews in high risk areas, was everywhere. When embers shot past fire lines, there was someone with a hose. When homes caught fire, there was probably someone there to rip the burning wood away. And while homes were lost, entire neighborhoods were saved.

The general success of the entire effort is something we have heard from a Tubbs Fire survivor. Roland Hendel's dog Odin famously refused to leave his herd of goats in 2017.

"We're a little better prepared this time," Hendel says. "Me, personally. Odin is a veteran. Certainly fire crews and first responders have been very well prepared and the community as well."

For Cal Fire, this is a skill that has come with much practice over the past two years. They have chased flames all across this state. But for residents of the North Bay, learning how to better respond to wildfire is a lesson that has come with a tremendous price.

"We are learning," says Sheriff Essick. "Unfortunately, we are learning the hard way, through some very hard times. We as a community, as first responders, we are so much better at responding to these emergencies and we will continue to sharpen and hone our skills."

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