SACRAMENTO " Milder-than-expected weekend weather has given fire crews hope that they can rein in a series of Northern California wildfires that have destroyed dozens of homes, forced thousands of residents to evacuate, and left a cloud of smoke over Carson City.
Thousands of people stayed away from their homes in the Butte County town of Paradise, but some were allowed to return Saturday to assess damage. At least 74 homes were destroyed and another 20 were damaged in the Paradise area, about 90 miles north of Sacramento.
The priority for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection shifted to assessing damage from the blaze that scorched about 36 square miles, said Cal Fire spokesman Joshpae White. The blaze was 45 percent contained after a blustery couple of days, and White said crews expected to have it controlled by Monday.
"With the cooler temperatures and the lack of winds we were able to make the fire burn on our terms," White said Saturday. "It's mellowed out considerably."
Five firefighters suffered minor injuries battling the blaze.
About 9,000 residents had fled the area at the fire's peak Friday. Officials did not know how many had returned home Saturday.
More than a quarter of Paradise residents are over 65. Many had to be moved in buses because they don't drive, while those who were bedridden or in wheelchairs were moved in vans or ambulances.
"We have a significant number of elderly people in wheelchairs at the shelters," Pamela Hospers, Butte County public authority manager, told The Sacramento Bee. "It's very confusing, very frustrating when you have to change and leave everything you know."
One elderly woman died after suffering a heart attack while being evacuated.
In recent days, high temperatures, steady wind and tinder-dry vegetation contributed to wildfires around the state.
In Santa Cruz County, firefighters got a handle on a wildfire that has charred one square mile and burned at least 10 homes in the Bonny Doon community. An evacuation order remained in effect for some areas where firefighters were still trying to stifle a blaze that was 75 percent contained.
The causes of all the California blazes remain under investigation.