After fleeing in terror three days earlier, Valley fire evacuees faced a new fear Tuesday as authorities began to arrange for them to cross barricade lines under escort and gain a first glimpse at their ravaged neighborhoods: What would they find when they got there?
Many already knew or strongly suspected that their homes had been lost, but they clung to hope that pets or a few precious keepsakes might have somehow survived.
“Stuff is just stuff, and it can be replaced,” said David Clark, 32, a Middletown man who was among 1,000 evacuees sheltered at the Napa County Fairgrounds, sleeping under donated blankets and wearing strangers’ clothes.
Clark had returned from his son’s soccer game Saturday afternoon shortly before the fire began to sprint toward his neighborhood, the flames vaulting from treetop to treetop. They didn’t have time to gather anything, not even the dogs.
“The not knowing” he said, “is killing us.”
Taking advantage of clearer skies, fire officials Tuesday morning for the first time were able to bring air tankers into the assault. The size of the total firefighting force grew to 2,400. Officials said the 68,700-acre blaze had consumed 585 residences and counting.
Efforts were concentrated on tamping down hot spots within the burn zone, chasing down a late afternoon breakaway fire east of Middletown, carving out firebreaks around the most volatile edges of the hydra-shaped inferno and protecting hillside enclaves and individual houses that are still in danger.
“We had a good day yesterday,” said Adam Fisher, an engineer with the Larkspur Fire Department in Marin County. “We saved three of the four houses we were tasked to defend.”
Still, with two other major blazes and many lesser ones burning in California, those fighting the Valley fire were well aware of a critical fact: Although the potential for wildfires in drought-stricken California seems infinite this summer, resources for fighting them are not.
Jeff Ohs, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection battalion chief dispatched to the Valley fire, said that at every blaze across California his colleagues “are asking for the same things: More firefighters, more fire engines, more bulldozers, more helicopters.”
Progress was reported on the 71,660-acre Butte fire, burning in the Sierra foothill Gold Country, as well as the 140,000 Rough fire in the mountains east of Fresno. Firefighters across the state were aided by cooler and in some cases wet weather, officials said with a caveat: “We can’t become complacent,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant, adding that the existing fires could still grow and new ones could ignite. And resources remain tight.
“We’re just stretched,” said Robert Michael, incident commander on the Valley fire.
To that end, the Obama administration announced Tuesday that it had directed $250 million toward fighting the wildfires raging in California and elsewhere, in addition to $450 million already transferred from various parts of the federal budget earlier this year for fighting such disasters.
The Obama administration called on Congress to start treating the ravenous blazes like hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters — as emergencies exempt from spending limits.
With the Valley fire now active only in pockets, a virtual army was able to enter the burn zone Tuesday, restringing new power lines and feeding hungry farm animals. A convoy of hay trucks rolled down California 29 from Clear Lake headed toward Middletown, with one truck peeling off to drop a few bales in fields where cattle and horses milled about.
Lake County probation officers were posted at the main crossroads, keeping most residents out of evacuated and still smoldering communities. But the barricade was not unbeatable.
Filemon and Maria Sanchez traversed back roads to find a way into Middletown, where, with rakes and shovels and aided by a few sympathetic firefighters, they combed through their charred home for any salvageable belongings. The best they could manage were coins from their children’s piggy banks.
“Just a week ago,” Maria said, “we painted the house a lovely shade of green.”
In the community of Hidden Valley Lakes, four miles north of Middletown, residents were still trying to take a full accounting of their losses three days after windblown embers rained down, claiming at least 50 homes. The power and speed of the fire continued to be a topic of terrible wonder.
“We were showered with embers from wildfires pouring over ridgelines two miles away,” recalled resident Jim Freeman, 68. “They included charred leaves that don’t even grow around here.”
Rumors swirled in the fire’s aftermath, mixing with the smoke. There was talk of an arsonist trying to finish the job on a house that the blaze missed, of looters working residential remains and grisly finds of bodies lost to mysterious circumstances.
The Lake County Sheriff’s Department lifted mandatory evacuations for some residents long enough for them to return to their homes — one by one, and for only 15 minutes — to retrieve any pets left behind. For nine hours, a line of cars snaked around the track that circled the football field at Kelseyville High School, waiting for an escort to take them in.
For Jason Pierce, 41, of Loch Lomond, the long wait was worth it. He returned to the Kelseyville evacuation center with his dog Checkers. He found the English spaniel inside their house, hungry but fine. His two young daughters, Pierce said, had been crying since they evacuated Sunday without Checkers.
“This will make it easier,” he said.
A Facebook page called Pet Lost and Found for Lake County Fires — which had nearly 3,500 likes — became a virtual telephone pole, plastered with fliers seeking lost pets. Many were stamped with the hashtag #valleyfirepets, which has made its way onto several online forums.
There was a photo of a brown Lab named Coco and a black Lab named Frankie, both with faces full of gray fur, sharing a bed together. “If anyone comes across these two old ladies from Middletown, please let me know,” a woman wrote. Later, she posted an update: “Coco was located and unfortunately was unable to make it off the property in time. Please keep your eyes open for Frankie. Thank you.”
There was the photo of Mamsy the cat, with gray hair and big ears, missing after a house burned down outside Middletown. And there was Bean, a pet pig pictured lounging on a blanket.
“We had to let him loose during the fire,” Bean’s owner posted. “I have no idea if he’s still at the house or not. If you see him and want to help just grab any type of food. He’ll come.”
For some evacuees, though, what remained at home, sadly enough, was no longer the central mystery: That was what would come next.
Cheerleading coach Jill Vierra, 43, of Anderson Springs drove a van full of middle-school cheerleaders to Fort Bragg on Saturday morning for a football game. As the squad prepared to take the field, Vierra saw a Facebook notification that wildfires were tearing toward her home.
The blaze swept through hours later, leaving wreckage in its path. Her family lost homes, and she assumes they lost four dogs, two birds and two cats. Only one dog, Zeus, a pit bull, was known to have survived.
Her minivan, parked on a field in the Calistoga fairgrounds complex, still bore the evidence of teen spirit cut short: the moniker “Swaggin’ Wagon” and the names of the Calistoga Colts cheerleading squad scrawled on the windows in white and lavender shoe polish.
“We keep asking ourselves: What do we do?” Vierra said Tuesday morning as she sat inside the van, wrapped in a blanket against the mist rising up from the fields. “What do we do if we don’t have anywhere to go?”
Times staff writers Hailey Branson-Potts and Lee Romney contributed to this story.
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