Valley fire: Residents of Middletown tell harrowing survival tales

A car burns in front of a burning home in the Valley fire on Sept. 13, 2015, in Middletown, Calif.

A car burns in front of a burning home in the Valley fire on Sept. 13, 2015, in Middletown, Calif.

(Stephen Lam / Getty Images)

Devastation from a rapidly moving weekend fire in Lake and Napa counties hit especially hard in the small community of Middletown, Calif., where residents had to flee for their lives overnight.

Hundreds of homes and other structures have been destroyed, according to California fire officials. While firefighters made stands to save homes and people -- and fought to establish fire lines -- the blaze itself raged uncontained Sunday.

By the time the sun rose in Middletown, survivors of the overnight firestorm began to emerge -- some on foot, some on bicycle -- amid smoking rubble and downed power lines.


“There are some people who are going to be suffering,” said David Hamilton, who stopped by the side of the road on his way out of Middletown. He was riding a bike with a milk crate wired to the handlebars.

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He had spent most of the night listening to the roar of the fire and the explosion of the propane tanks in the small mountain town: “It was like bombs going off. Three going off at one time, kaboom.”

Though he tried not to, Tom Casler eventually fell asleep in his pickup truck, parked next to a swimming pool at the house of a neighbor in Cobb, which also was hard hit. He figured the water would protect him, which it did. But when Casler awoke with a start, he realized his neighbor’s house was lost. So was his, his “dream home,” the retired federal public defender said.

“What a bummer,” Casler said. “I think it is time to move to Mexico.”

By Sunday morning, Francisco Cervantes could do little more than sit on the concrete wall outside his yellow stucco home. He, and the house with its bright green lawn, had made it through the night, though little else around him had. A dead horse lay on the roadside. A neighbor’s house was rubble but still standing was the goat shed, guarded by a billy and nanny.

At first, Cervantes said, he thought the fire would never come to his piece of valley, overlooking a vineyard and flanked by the hills. Still, he sent his family away and stayed alone to guard the house.

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As the fire approached, Cervantes wanted dearly to leave, but couldn’t escape. Trapped in blinding smoke, he spent the night averting disasters. The neighbor’s fence caught fire -- he tore it out. The power went out and his garden hose went dry -- he dipped water by the bucket from a neighbor’s swimming pool. The canopy of the big tree on the lot line began to burn, and Cervantes raced to put out embers that cascaded to the ground.

“Everywhere there was a fire. Back, front, sides,” he said. “Next time, I never stay home.”

Andy Strode was hired to haul water in to Middletown, but couldn’t make it to the fire station. When he arrived around 3 a.m., the station was surrounded by flames.

Strode kept a nervous vigil at a different station, helpless to do much as Middletown’s own water lines went dry.

“All the hydrants are out of water. I don’t understand it,” Strode said, refilling his own tanker from the public swimming pool next to charred athletic fields.

“I heard they had 2 million gallons of storage, and it was gone. That’s a lot of water,” Strode said.

Twitter: @paigestjohn


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