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‘Incredibly fast’ California fire destroys hundreds of homes

Lake County sheriff’s officers prepare to evacuate Butts Canyon Road in Middletown, Calif., as a wildfire jumps State Route 29 on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015.
Lake County sheriff’s officers prepare to evacuate Butts Canyon Road in Middletown, Calif., as a wildfire jumps State Route 29 on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015. The (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Press Democrat via AP

Hundreds of homes were destroyed, thousands of people were forced to flee, and a state of emergency was declared in Napa and Lake counties as the rapidly spreading Valley Fire grew to 50,000 acres Sunday and tore through several communities, incinerating structures, fire officials said.

About 140 miles away, another huge blaze, the 65,000-acre Butte Fire, torched 81 homes and 51 other buildings by Sunday in Amador and Calaveras counties, where it has been burning since Wednesday. In all, more than a dozen wildfires scorched drought-stricken and dry California on Sunday.

In Middletown, a handful of houses stood relatively unscathed in one neighborhood, but around them, where 24 hours before dozens of homes had stood, all that was left were concrete foundations and the empty metal shells of scorched home appliances, all covered with a fine white ash.

The quick-thinking efforts of firefighters likely saved the homes that still stood across from Middletown High School, as fire hydrants went dry around midnight Saturday and crews were forced to fill their tanker trucks from the school’s swimming pool.

The rate at which the fire spread, jumping from 400 acres around 1:30 p.m. Saturday to 50,000 acres by Sunday, was astonishing, said Veronica Barclay, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“It’s moving incredibly fast,” she said. “It’s very dry due to the ongoing drought, and there is just a lot of fuel up here.”

 

The blaze came upon Ron Clark, 48, and mother Carol, 70, so quickly that they were forced to flee their home on Gifford Springs Road in the community of Cobb with their two dogs, Marley and Sly, as 50-foot flames consumed large pine trees on either side of the road.

“The pines were exploding. The flames were close to the highway, and they were huge,” Ron Clark said. “It was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it. By then it was get out or get burned. If we hadn’t left when we did, this story wouldn’t be told.”

The Clarks initially ended up at the Twin Pines Casino in Middletown, but were forced to leave as the fire grew closer. They would be directed from shelter to shelter throughout the night until they ended up at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga, where hundreds of evacuees spent the night in tents and recreational vehicles and on cots.

It was there, after running into neighbors, that the Clarks learned that their entire neighborhood, including their home, had been leveled.

Larry Menzio, owner of Menzio Tire on Barnes Street in Middletown, sifted through the rubble that was left of his business on Sunday afternoon – little more than about 20 burned-out cars and a piece of twisted metal that used to be a vehicle lift.

Menzio said he saw the flames coming from Cobb, about 10 miles away, on Saturday but thought, “No way in hell it’s going to get here. And then all of a sudden it just came in.”

Rather than try to save his business, Menzio ran to try to protect the houses of his son and nephew, both in Middletown. They put water on the roofs and around the perimeters, and his son’s house was spared, though his nephew’s was lost.

As for his business, Menzio was at a loss. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “I might call it quits.”

 

Barclay said a damage assessment for Middletown and surrounding areas was just beginning Sunday morning, but that it did not look good for the community of roughly 1,300.

“We’re just starting to get our people in there, but there’s been quite a bit of damage,” she said. Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said the job of assessing the destruction was going to be a long one. He estimated as many as 1,000 homes in the area were lost.

Merna and Michael Scott, both 68, nearly got stuck in their home on Main Street in Middletown on Saturday night. Both have mobility issues – Merna uses a wheelchair and Michael uses a walker – and neither drives, so getting out proved complicated.

“We could see flames all around our house, but we were just trying to hold out,” Merna Scott said.

“We’ve never been in a situation like that,” Michael added. “We called 911 and asked them if there was a mandatory evacuation and they said, ‘Hell yeah, get out!’”

The fire has forced evacuations of several thousand people in the communities of Cobb, Middletown, Loch Lomond, Hidden Valley Lake, the Harbin Hot Springs resort and areas around High Valley Road, Bottle Rock Road and Big Canyon Road.

Evacuations were expanded to include Butts Canyon Road to the Napa County line, including Berryessa Estates and Highway 29 from north of Calistoga to highways 29 and 53 in Lower Lake, as well as the communities of Clearlake Riviera, Riviera West and Point Lakeview to Soda Bay on Highway 281.

Evacuation centers were open at Kelseyville Presbyterian Church and the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga.

On Saturday, four firefighters suffered second-degree burns battling the blaze. Members of Copter 104, a helicopter crew based in Lake County, were taken to UC Davis Medical Center, and all were in stable condition.

“The injuries of the firefighters are a sad reminder of the dangers faced in this year’s fire season,” Berlant said.

At least 1,000 firefighters were battling the blaze, with the help of four air tankers, and the governor’s disaster declaration set the stage for an influx of California National Guard troops to supplement Cal Fire personnel.

The ongoing drought, a statewide heat wave last week and strong winds all came together to create the perfect environment for wildfires to spread rapidly, Berlant said.

“The drought conditions have led to increased fire activity all summer long,” Berlant said. “But with triple-digit temperatures up and down the state last week, it caused the grass, brush and trees to be tinder-dry. Then, as we saw temperatures begin to cool down, we saw winds increase, and it’s those winds that continue to fan many of these fires.”

The Valley Fire was just the latest in a series of devastating fires that have rocked Lake County and surrounding areas this summer. The Rocky Fire burned more than 69,000 acres in Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties before being fully contained in mid-August, and the Jerusalem Fire scorched roughly 25,000 acres in Lake and Napa counties before it was fully contained in late August.

The cause of the Valley Fire is under investigation.

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