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Firefighters battle a wildfire near Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

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By Salvador Rodriguez

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) - Firefighters gained ground on the deadliest wildfires in California history on Sunday as winds eased while searchers combed charred ruins for more victims of the blazes that have claimed at least 40 lives.

Two of the three most destructive fires in Northern California were more than half contained. Some residents who fled the flames in hard-hit Sonoma County could be allowed to return home in the next 24 hours, officials said.

More than 5,700 structures have been destroyed by more than a dozen wildfires, which ignited a week ago and have consumed an area larger than New York City. The city of Santa Rosa lost entire neighbourhoods.

"Overall, things are feeling optimistic. We're very cautious about that," said Brad Gouvea, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection incident commander. "You'd never know it's the middle of October in Sonoma County and have fire behaviour like this."

Warm and very dry weather is forecast to continue through Monday, the National Weather Service said. Rain could arrive on Thursday after a cooling trend, it said.

Steve Crawford, a Cal Fire operations chief, said heavy winds had lightened and helped drive flames away from populated areas. Additional equipment and manpower made available as other fires have died down also have helped, he said.

"Before we were kind of chasing the fire. Now that we're getting more personnel, and the weather ... is really helping us out," he said.

About 11,000 firefighters supported by air tankers and helicopters are battling blazes that have consumed more than 217,000 acres (88,000 hectares).

About 50 search and rescue personnel backed by National Guard troops were combing tens of thousands of charred acres (hectares) in Sonoma County for bodies, sheriff's spokeswoman Misti Harris said.

"Once it's safe to go through, we'll search every structure in the burned area," she said.

Twenty-two people died in Sonoma County, and 174 people were still listed as missing there although the number has dropped from 235 on Saturday as more people checked in with authorities.

Evacuation orders were lifted for the picturesque Napa Valley resort town of Calistoga, whose 5,000 residents were ordered out by authorities four days ago with fire within miles (km) of downtown.

RETURNING TO THE UNKNOWN

Some of the evacuees being housed at a Sonoma raceway hoped to return to their homes on Sunday.

Retiree Stephen Garner, 68, of Sonoma, has been camped with his wife in the couple's recreational vehicle. Garner said he hopes to return to his home soon, but he was not sure if their home survived the fires.

"As far as we know our house is OK, but that's the hard part: You don't know,” he said.

If their house is damaged, Garner said he and his wife will likely remain in their RV and hope that their insurance covers wildfires.

In Redwood Valley, a scorched Mendocino County town of about 1,700 people, Jami Flores and her family sifted through the ruins of their two-story rented home after the county lifted stay-away orders.

The 100-year-old house was uninsured and reduced to rubble, but her son found one item that survived - a palm-sized metal cross.

"That's a blessing and makes us believe that everything will be OK," said Flores, 42.

But the fast-moving fires north of San Francisco remained a danger, with thousands more people ordered to leave their homes on Saturday.

Firefighters gained control of two of the deadliest fires overnight in wine country's Napa and Sonoma counties: The Tubbs fire was 60 percent contained and the Atlas fire 56 percent contained, Cal Fire said. But barely a third of the Redwood Valley fire, which alone is responsible for eight deaths in Mendocino County, was extinguished.

The 40 confirmed fatalities make the fires California's deadliest since recordkeeping began, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

About 75,000 people remain displaced.

At least a dozen Napa Valley and Sonoma County wineries were damaged or destroyed, throwing the state's wine industry and related tourism into disarray.

Firefighters from Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah are helping battle the blazes. Cal Fire estimated the fires would be contained by Friday.

The year's wildfire season is one of the worst in U.S. history, with nearly 8.6 million acres (3.4 million hectares) burned as of Oct. 13, according to the National Interagency Fire Centre. The worst on record for the same period in a year was 9.3 million acres in 2015.

(Additional reporting by Heather Somerville in Santa Rosa, Ian Simpson in Washington and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Ian Simpson and Scott Malone; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Mary Milliken)

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