Middletown residents dig out, carry on after devastation hits

After the inferno swept through town, incinerating homes and apartments and trees and power lines and his own home, Duane Harper did the only thing he could do.

He went to work.

Harper, 59, general manager of the Hardester’s Market in this fire-ravaged community of about 1,300 people, reopened Middletown’s only general store just before noon despite not having any electricity or Internet service.

“These are our friends and neighbors,” Harper said. “We need to be open for the community.”

The market was taking IOUs from residents who didn’t have cash or checks to pay for water, food and other supplies, and was running on a backup generator provided by PG&E.

“Just pay us some time down the road,” Harper said as he put on a brave smile for customers, despite the fact that his house in Cobb burned down Saturday night.

“It was an inferno,” said Harper, who only had minutes to load up his belongings before the flames came. “Apocalyptic is the word I’ve been using.”

Harper spent Saturday night with a friend in Sonoma County, then returned to the sight of a town pockmarked with destruction. Entire blocks were burned to the ground, with charred vehicles, downed power lines and fallen trees lining the streets.

On Sunday, as the Valley fire that swept through with little warning continued to threaten Lake County, residents passing through the market reflected on how close they had come to losing everything.

Joktan Stickney, 28, of Santa Rosa, grabbed some supplies, then headed up the hill toward his parents’ 160-acre ranch in Hidden Valley.

His stepfather, Greg Zielsdorf, 55, worried “the hell out of everyone” because he just wouldn’t leave the house, Stickney said.

“He’s a cowboy,” Stickney said of his stepfather, adding that his mother, Gabriela, had evacuated earlier.

At the Kelseyville High School on Sunday afternoon, hundreds gathered to receive an update from local officials, including state Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents Lake County. McGuire and Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin implored residents to cooperate with the evacuation orders.

“This has been a hell of a 90 days for Lake County,” McGuire said, noting the preceding wildland fires to hit the region, including the Rocky and Jerusalem fires. “…Our county is now faced with this monster.”

“We have not faced a fire like this in decades,” he said, adding that law enforcement and fire resources are pouring in from across the state.

Inside the school, the gym was decked out with makeshift beds. Residents streamed in from around the county to ask questions about insurance and get supplies. Several tables of used clothing were laid out in front of the school for people to take.

Richard and Donna Wattenburger live in a community of Kelseyville called Clear Lake Riviera. On Sunday morning, they received a call about 7:00 a.m. from officials about a voluntary evacuation order. But only minutes later, they heard the sheriff’s office broadcasting mandatory evacuation orders on a loudspeaker and sirens everywhere, Richard Wattenburger said.

“I’ve never packed a pickup that quick,” Richard Wattenburger said.

The couple, their five dogs and one cat, along with their son, Dillon, jumped in the vehicle and headed toward Upper Lake, where Richard Wattenburger’s parents live.

The Wattenburgers came to Kelseyville High School to receive the update Sunday afternoon and remained apprehensive about what’s to come.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Donna Wattenburger said of the evacuation orders.

About 185 miles to the southeast, some diehards refused to immediately flee the north state’s other major blaze, the Butte fire.

“We are going to go, we are just going to go when we absolutely have to,” said Willie Baechler, who owns a San Andreas machine shop.

He was one of a dozen residents of the Oak Park Estates that chose to keep watch from a bluff near their homes as the fire stirred.

They sat in lawn chairs, sipped light beer and waved at emergency personnel as they passed along Mountain Ranch Road. They said they have natural gas to cook, generators for power and plenty of food.

“We’re not in anyone’s way,” Baechler said.

Another longtime Calaveras County resident, Sam Vassey, 70, stayed at the family compound near Mountain Ranch as long as he could. When he fled earlier this week, he scooped up two small dogs and a cat. Left behind were two dogs and a jackass. One of the dogs and the jackass have since been found.

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