Firefighters make progress as Californians return to charred homes

Roommates film harrowing drive through flames
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Story highlights

  • The wildfires have led to 41 deaths and more than $3 billion in damages
  • Several large fires remain, but rain is forecast in the area later this week

(CNN)The 11,000 firefighters battling "one of the greatest tragedies" to ever strike California are starting to gain the upper hand.

But as more residents return home, many are discovering they have nothing to return home to.
Allison De Toffoli took one look at her parents' home and sobbed.
    "They're 85 years old, and I just don't know if they can rebuild," she said.
    The Santa Rosa house burned to the ground, along with decades of precious heirlooms.
    "So many family heirlooms -- I thought my whole life, 'I'm going to inherit these someday. This is what I'm going to pass down to my kids.' "
    Fifteen major wildfires are still tearing across California, scorching over 217,000 acres and destroying more than 5,700 structures.
    Bodycam video shows dramatic wildfire rescue
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    At least 41 people have been killed, including a driver of a water tender truck who died in a single-vehicle rollover early Monday, fire officials said. Sonoma County officials said 88 people are still reported missing in that county.
    "This is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest tragedy that California has ever faced," Gov. Jerry Brown said. "The devastation is just unbelievable, is a horror that no one could have imagined."
    The good news: The two largest fires are about 60% contained, and rain later this week could help quell the flames.
    But countless families are just now grappling with the reality of losing everything.

    $3 billion in damages

    Entire subdivisions and neighborhoods have been incinerated, leaving only ash, debris and scorched earth.
    In Sonoma County, damages are expected to cost more than $3 billion, tweeted State Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents the North Bay.
    Bret Gouvea, deputy chief of state firefighting service Cal Fire, said some fires are "just fighting us."
    "They're not going easy, but we're getting them," he said.
    Gouvea said fire officials are "cautiously optimistic."
    "Our containment percentages are continuing to go up," he said.
    Firefighting crews and supplies came from all over the country and even as far away as Australia, Cal Fire said.
    "It's been our mission, our top priority, to get everybody back in their homes and back to some normalcy," Gouvea said.
    It may take weeks for some residents to get back to their homes in scorched areas, Sonoma County Sheriff Sheriff Robert Giordano said.
    "So, today, the theme word is patience," Giordano said. "Our goal is to get you back in. We're working as a team."
    He said officials hope to reopen neighborhoods at some point and let residents return using checkpoints and escorts.
    "So, you'll literally be able to show up at this place, say 'this is my home, here is my ID,' and you'll be escorted in to get things," the sheriff said.

    Ash and debris could be 'very toxic'

    Health officials warned residents returning home to be careful about sifting through their belongings.
    The Tubbs Fire destroyed homes in Santa Rosa, California.
    "The ash and the debris is very toxic. You have lots of chemicals and plastic and paint burned down," said Dr. Karen Relucio, public health officer in Napa County.
    She advised that it could be hot and there could be sharp objects in the debris.
    "We strongly urge you not to remove any large debris because this can release toxins into the air."
    In Santa Rosa, a city about 50 miles northwest of San Francisco, Penny Wright was one of those who returned.
    She tearfully walked through the debris of where her home once stood. With burned cars, concrete and twisted metal scattered everywhere, it was hard to tell which one was her house.
    "All your life savings and work for all the years is gone," she said. "We lived here 10 years. I never thought that Santa Rosa would have a fire like this and we would lose everything."