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Oct 20, 6:58 PM EDT

Residents of areas among the most badly burned by the Northern California wildfires have been allowed back into their neighborhoods


AP Photo
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) -- After fleeing flames that were closing in on him 12 days ago, Donnie Steggal finally returned home Friday - and sifted through the ruins of the Northern California home where he and his wife raised their two children.

Everything in his one-story house had burned, including the 1965 Buick Wildcat that Steggal and his late father restored and kept in the garage. Steggal's wife did find a ring his grandmother had given him and he found some coins that had belonged to his great-grandmother, but that was about it.

Steggal was among residents of the small city of Santa Rosa who fled a wildfire in the dead of night with only minutes to spare. Authorities on Friday allowed back to their neighborhoods for the first time to see so they could see if anything was still standing.

Authorities on Friday said 8,400 homes and businesses have been destroyed as they continue to assess the devastating damage to homes and businesses that burned in and around California's famed wine country north of San Francisco.

"It's heartbreaking," Steggal said tearfully after finding the charred remains of his father's pistols.

The family had just remodeled the home's bathroom and kitchen and Steggal said the property was "everything I had. Now it's gone, you know. It's all the memories."

Steggal's Coffey Park neighborhood was one of three particularly hard hit Santa Rosa, where blocks of a once tidy neighborhood of popular parks and good public schools were leveled by the flames.

Steggal said he and his family fled early on the morning of Oct. 9 to a friend's house and then had to evacuate from that home a day later.

The Steggals are staying with his mother-in-law and were lucky enough to rent a small apartment they will move into next year while their home is rebuilt - making them extremely lucky because Santa Rosa's rental market had a 1 percent vacancy rate before the fire.

Sonoma County in general and Santa Rosa in particular suffered the most damage when a series of wildfires tore through California's wine country starting Oct. 8. At least 42 people died most of them in Sonoma County.

Elsewhere in Santa Rosa Friday, Dan and Sherre Hulbert donned white plastic suits, rubber boots and face masks as they sifted through the ash of their house - finding destroyed golf clubs and a ruined box of World War II letters.

They had just finished remodeling the house where they had raised their children and lived for nearly three decades.

"That's pretty devastating because it's not just a home, it's a life," Dan Hulbert said. "You leave a life behind and then you just move on and start over."

California's insurance commissioner has said preliminary estimates of the wildfire losses exceed $1 billion and that the figure is expected to rise.

While the Steggals decided to rebuild, the Hulberts were unsure whether they should do so or move closer to their son, who lives in Colorado.

"My wife and I always said this is where we were going to retire or die," Steggal said. "That hasn't changed.

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Associated Press writers Paul Elias and Janie Har also contributed to this report from San Francisco.

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Information from: The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, http://www.pressdemocrat.com

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