One by one, victims of the Wall fire made their way into the Oroville Municipal Auditorium Tuesday, waiting to learn whether their homes had been spared or destroyed in the blaze that began ripping through the Butte County hillsides last Friday.
Some lived in areas so rural they didn’t know their official addresses and had to rely on property parcel numbers to determine if their homes were among the 41 destroyed so far in the 5,800-acre blaze.
Others, like Carolyn Opalenik, already knew the answer: Everything, including her son’s beloved cat, was gone.
Opalenik, 46, learned her home had been destroyed from a neighbor who came back from the devastated area with photos. She recounted a heartbreaking effort Sunday afternoon to gather up her family’s chickens and goats as the flames roared toward her home. The warning from police that they had to leave came too late to save much, she said, and her family had to flee.
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“The whole mountain was on fire by the time they came up,” she said. “We already knew we had to leave.”
Opalenik and her husband, Tim, tried rounding up their animals, but the flames were within 1,000 feet when they realized they had to take the only way out down the hillside to safety.
She managed to save only one sentimental item from home – the Marine Corps golden eagle, globe and anchor emblem belonging to her son, Jesse, who is away training to become an infantryman. But her husband was unable to catch Jesse’s cat before they had to flee, she said as she dissolved into tears.
“I’m scared to tell him, I don’t know how to tell him,” Opalenik said. “He’s away at boot camp, and he has to focus on his training.”
Tim Opalenik, 48, was too upset to talk about the ordeal after emerging from the assistance center the county has set up to help fire victims. His neighbor, Franz Longsworth, said he would be sharing anything he could to help the couple.
“I just have to share my resources with them; they are like family,” said Longsworth, who is a deacon studying to become an Anglican priest. “We have to share our resources to build a more beautiful community.
“We have our faith.”
Longsworth’s home, about 300 feet from his neighbor’s on Viewcrest Drive, was spared from the fire except for some damage to the garage. He said he learned the house was intact when his wife saw it on a Fox News broadcast Sunday and she “cried and cried and cried.”
The fire damage on this street was unpredictable. Some areas were unscathed, others destroyed.
Steve Orsillo said he fled his home of 26 years at 7 p.m. Saturday as he saw a “wall of flames coming over the top of the hill.”
On Sunday afternoon, while he was buying a snack at Yoville Frozen Yogurt in Oroville, he learned from a neighbor that his home was gone.
“That’s just a kick in the gut,” Orsillo said Tuesday as he surveyed the damage. To the left of his driveway lay devastation, his house and garage gone, the garage door a crumpled wreck, the septic system melted beneath where a deck once stood. To the left, the lawn was intact and the pool remained unharmed, although firefighters had drained it trying to save the neighborhood.
Orsillo said he already had brought a trailer up to live in, and that he planned to bring another up for his 34-year-old son, Mark, who has Down syndrome and lives with Orsillo and his wife.
He plans to build a deck between the two trailers and stay on the property while he rebuilds his home.
“I didn’t believe honest to goodness there was a 1 percent chance my house was going to burn,” he said. “I put so much effort into fire safety.”
Fire officials say the blaze still represents a threat and was only 45 percent contained by Tuesday afternoon. Cal Fire doesn’t expect full containment until Saturday, and says it will not allow residents back into some neighborhoods before then. Other evacuation orders have been lifted, and Butte County officials are now focusing on helping people who lost insurance documents, Social Security cards and other items they will need to survive while they rebuild.
About a dozen homeowners were waiting to get into the assistance center Tuesday at noon, when it opened, and more are expected Wednesday.
“In some cases, people may have lost all of their belongings,” county spokeswoman Casey Hatcher said. “Our goal today is care and compassion.
“We get it. People left in a hurry. If they didn’t leave with their documents we’re going to make that right today.”
The cause of the Wall fire is still under investigation. It is one of more than a dozen large blazes firefighters are battling statewide. So far this year, the Wall fire is the most destructive yet in terms of property damage.
About 7,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, along with help from California National Guard helicopters and air tankers, in the start to what is expected to be a long, difficult fire season.
The heavy winter rains, which broke the state’s five-year drought, generated a large amount of grass and other fuels that dried out in the recent heat wave and allowed fires to erupt all along the state, including the 600-acre Farad fire that broke out Monday near the Nevada state line and has closed Interstate 80 intermittently.
More than 630 fires have erupted in the last week alone, including the Winters fire in Yolo County that forced some evacuations after it began Thursday. By Tuesday afternoon, the fire had burned 2,269 acres and was 90 percent contained.
Yet another fire erupted in Placer County late Tuesday around Applegate east of I-80, forcing evacuations along Clipper Gap, Clipper Creek, Boole and Cerro Vista roads.