SONOMA, Calif. — Kelly McLeskey Dolata, who was forced to evacuate her house when monstrous wildfires descended on the region, is trying her best to see the light through the thick, smoky fog.
"In so many ways, I am so grateful that I have my house and my business," said Dolata, who owns an event planning business. "But it is hard to be happy when so many people have lost everything."
Residents across this city were doing whatever they could Tuesday to stay positive and return to normalcy, or something like it. Along the main drag, businesses were reopening and traffic had picked up. In front of City Hall, residents scattered optimistic lawn signs — "Thank You For Saving Our Town," "The Love in the Air Is Thicker Than the Smoke." Blinking traffic signs had been reprogrammed to read "SONOMA STRONG."
But reminders of the deadly fires that ripped through Northern California wine country, killing at least 41 people and destroying thousands of homes, were virtually everywhere. A brown, acrid haze hung in the air, and some residents walked around in masks. In nearby Glen Ellen, the landscape was grim: charred family homes, ash-covered cars, streets reduced to nothing but rubble.
All the while, California fire officials were looking for dozens of missing people, as well as the remains of those who couldn't evacuate in time. Fortunately, lighter winds were expected Tuesday evening, a condition that could help firefighters control the blazes.
"We're in a far better position today than we were several days ago," Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning told Reuters in a telephone interview early Tuesday, referring to the Napa Valley.
Tens of thousands of Californians were beginning to return home, and some folks in Sonoma were standing by to help them adjust to a stark new reality. The Church Mouse, a thrift store, reopened Monday to distribute donated clothes and household items for free, despite not having any power.
"Some of these people were running out of their houses with nothing," said Nicholas Dolata, Kelly's husband and the store's interim director. "We are just letting people come through and get what they need for themselves or their friends who have lost everything."
Kelly McLeskey Dolata said she was trying to keep her mind occupied by responding to clients whose wine country weddings she must now postpone.
"You have to hold your composure for your clients and your family," she said. "But who would have ever thought something like this could happen?"
Rick Deller was in Southern California on Saturday morning when he realized that the home he owns in Sonoma was threatened. He watched in horror as his security cameras recorded video of the flames reaching his home's third level.
"I woke up and saw on the Nest camera that it was orange, and we could see flames all around the house," he said in a telephone interview.
"And then 'boom,' after 15 minutes of watching live footage, the cameras went dead, which led us to believe the worst," Deller said, adding that all his family's artwork, wedding photo albums and keepsakes were in the home.
It wasn't until 10 hours later that he heard about the fate of his home from a Los Angeles fire battalion chief and friend who happened to be helping out in Sonoma. His home was still standing after a nearly 24-hour firefight from his driveway.
"You learn a lot of things when you think you lost everything," Deller said. "That's when I heard my 6- and 7-year-old watching cartoons, and I thought, 'Everything that really matters is still watching cartoons and eating cereal.'"
Chiara Sottile reported from Sonoma. Daniel Arkin reported from New York.