Valley Fire evacuees return home, find charred ruins

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (AP) -- Some residents cried as they walked through the rubble of their homes while others shared amazing stories of survival as more people returned to their houses Tuesday and surveyed the twisted metal and smoking ruins left behind by a devastating California wildfire.

Gary Herrin sobbed as he walked through what had been his childhood home in Middletown.

"Yep, grew up here, was able to walk to school from here. Many friends lived close by," Herrin recalled, looking around. "There's a lot of good people here, but it's a ghost town now, it's really eerie."

His brother had been living in the home and members of his extended family resided nearby.

"I go to my brother-in-law's house, my niece's house, and there's nothing, nothing, ashes," Herrin said.

A number of people saw the devastation for the first time since the massive flames sped Saturday through rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco.

Aided by drought, as of Tuesday evening the Valley Fire had consumed 67,200 acres and was 30 percent contained according to Cal Fire.

Authorities say 585 homes were known to be destroyed, and the number was expected to increase. Another 9,000 structures remained threatened.

During his return, Herrin walked to the charred remains of an old Chevy pickup and gave it an angry kick. The truck was the only possession of his late father that he still had. Other people found nothing but concrete foundations and chimney stacks.

"You've got to look at everybody's, everybody's loss," Herrin said. "It's never going to be about one person. It's about everybody."

Investigators are now looking for the cause of the devastation. The search for clues is focusing on where the fire started near a severely damaged tool shed in Cobb.

The shed sits on a property where the home is mostly unscathed. Two red gas cans could be seen near the shed.

"We know the fire started there because of wind pattern and where the fire originated and also the 911 calls that identified where the start was," said Cal Fire spokesman Chief David Shew

Filemon Sanchez and his wife returned to the place where they raised their three children on Jefferson Court in Middletown to find almost nothing recognizable. Their home was a pile of ash and rubble.

"Unfortunately, the sheriffs came and told me I had to leave. And thank God I leave. I left the house and it burned down. Oh well; start again from scratch," Sanchez said with a remarkably positive attitude under such awful circumstances.

14-year-old Evanna Pirlo had an entirely different experience when she and her mother arrived at her home in Cobb.

"At first when I was coming up here, I was really nervous because I didn't know what to expect," said Pirlo. "And now that I know that it's here, I'm really happy and relieved. So, it's really nice,"

But Evanna's relief was tempered by all the destruction she saw on the way up to her house.

"I'm just hoping that all my friends' homes are ok, and that they're going to be ok," the teen said.

But her mother, Suman Hartzell, interrupted saying, "Ari's house is not ok." Evanna responded, "Yeah, one of my friend's houses down there burned down... it's gone."

Evanna and her mother, who live in Clear Lake, had just a short 15 minutes to find her two cats, and they saw them immediately. The animals were elusive. And it took some time to catch Snowflake.

"We got one, but the other one is just so frightened. Soshe went under the different house. I don't know what we're going to do about her," said Hartzell.

They couldn't catch the cat called Sunset, so they just left food and water.

"It's just emotionally draining," added Hartzell.

One big reason why all this is so draining is Evanna and her mother had to wait in a long line at Kelseyville High School for hours for an escort back to the house - for that short 15 minute stop - just like hundreds of other people.

"I'm exhausted, I'm fried. I don't need a lot (of sleep), but I curled up, I got four hours last night. But the first time I was up for 36 hours straight," said evacuee David Smith as he sat in line in his car, the car he has been sleeping in since the fire.

Back in Middletown, with the help of some firefighters, Mr. Sanchez's wife found a collection of coins, some dating back to the 1800s. One little bright spot under a very dark cloud for a family that lost their home.

The Lake County fire and another blaze about 120 miles to the southeast have displaced 23,000 people and were the worst of a dozen wildfires burning in the state. The Lake County fire spread into northern Napa County, but the region's famous wine valley was not threatened.

Rancher Lisa Comstock said she and her three dogs survived the raging fire in rural Middletown by jumping into a water trough as flames neared her home.

Comstock was also able to keep her horses nearby as the fire burned around them.

"The flames were coming over that mountain and surrounding this place like there was no tomorrow," she said. "I jumped in the water trough with all the dogs, and the horses came up around. Thank God they just stayed here."

At one point she was sure she wasn't going to make it but talking to her animals helped keep her and the animals calm.

"If this is how I go, I'm not leaving these animals. That's all I could think of," she said.

Thousands of utility crew members and firefighters were working diligently to control the blaze and get life back to normal for as many people as possible, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Dave Shaw.

"We're working as hard as possible to try to put out the hotspots in these burned areas so that when people do come back there won't be a risk of them getting burned themselves," he said.

The utility companies were trying to restore power to the area and water was flowing in some areas of town.

One person has been confirmed dead, and others were unaccounted for, but authorities said they could be staying with relatives, on vacation or elsewhere and not impacted by the fire.

The dead woman has been identified as Barbara McWilliams, 72. She told her caretaker she didn't want to leave her home near Middletown. The world traveler and sharp-minded woman with advanced multiple sclerosis said she would be fine.

Her body was found Sunday in her burned-out home after flames kept Lake County sheriff's officials from reaching her. 

Scores of people in Lake County were escorted back to their homes Tuesday to check on pets and farm animals. They were allowed to remain for 15 minutes to feed and give water to the animals.

Will Irons was headed to his surviving home in Hidden Valley with his two dogs that escaped the fire with him. He was anxious to see if his two cats, chickens and hamster were still alive.

Lake County has been particularly hard-hit. In late July, a wildfire east of Clear Lake destroyed 43 homes as it spread across more than 100 square miles. Another fire erupted Aug. 9 several miles from the community of Lower Lake.

Throughout the state, more than 6,400 structures remained threatened.

East of Fresno, California's largest wildfire had moved away from the Sierra Nevada's Giant Sequoia trees, some of which are 3,000 years old.

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