MIDDLETOWN, Calif. — As they watched the sky go black and flames race toward their homes, the artists and campers, retirees and families living in this mountain town knew it was time to flee. Some, fearing that the drought-fueled fires raging across California would bring this moment to their door, had bags packed, ready to go. Others did not.
So as the fire crested a ridge line on Saturday afternoon, people grabbed insurance papers and birth certificates, shoes and extra socks. They loaded up antique rugs but left behind a mother’s quilts. They wrangled horses and pets. The Nelson family grabbed Tick, their Chihuahua mix. Steve Shurelian, 60, picked up an ailing neighbor. Neighbors screamed at one another to get out. The embers streaked down like missiles. By night, escaping families were driving through curtains of flame.
“I felt like it was the end times,” said Janis Irvin, who believed her house was destroyed. “It was red and black and boiling.”
By late Monday, 11,000 firefighters across California were still battling to contain a dozen large wildfires that had destroyed hundreds of homes, displaced 13,000 people and turned white-fenced neighborhoods into char. A least one person had been killed, an elderly disabled woman unable to escape when her house here in Lake County was swallowed in flames, officials said.
The blaze that began in Lake County, called the Valley Fire, has burned across 61,000 acres, and was only 5 percent contained. In Middletown, most of downtown — including a new arts center and Noble’s Saloon — survived untouched, but entire residential blocks were heaps of ash. Grape fields were scorched black. A scrim of smoke continued to rise from the tinder-dry mountains that ring the town.
A trickle of people were allowed to return on Monday to inspect their homes and retrieve livestock, but hundreds more were still sleeping on cots or in tents at evacuation shelters on the northern and southern edges of the fire.
“I’m looking for my wife,” one man said as he walked into the cafeteria of a Red Cross evacuation center at the Napa County Fairground, about 30 miles from Middletown. Over crumb cake and pancakes, neighbors reunited, asked about each other’s homes and recalled how the erratic, whipping winds had brought the fire down from the mountainsides on Saturday afternoon and transformed their …Read More