‘I felt like it was the end times’: Two wildfires incinerate 720 homes, displace 23,000 people, one dies

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 the drought-fueled fires raging across California would bring this moment to their door, had packed bags, ready to go. Others had 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 believes 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 have destroyed at least 720 homes, displaced 23,000 people and turned white-fenced neighborhoods into char. At least one person has been killed, an elderly disabled woman unable to escape when her house in Lake County was swallowed in flames, officials said.

The blaze that began in Lake County, called the Valley Fire, has burned across 62,000 acres, and was only 10 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,” said one man 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 town into an inferno.

“It did things fire isn’t supposed to do,” said Capt. Mike Walton, a bulldozer operator with Cal Fire, the state fire agency, who escorted a friend into Middletown to see his destroyed home. He pointed to the black skeletons of trees and a neighborhood grid reduced to ashes. “Fire does weird stuff. But look at this.”

Middletown, population 1,300, is a winding mountain drive away from the wealth of Napa Valley’s vineyards, a town that residents say is part cowboy and part hippie. The clothing-optional Harbin Hot Springs — destroyed in the blaze — was a cultural anchor for many artists and liberal transplants from San Francisco who said they fell in love with the mountains and Middletown’s small-town eclecticism.

“We’re more like family here than a town,” said Deanna Hingst, 32, as she stood in her family’s charred backyard. All that was left of the house was an interior brick wall, a chimney and her mother’s Corningware cook set.

For some, Saturday began with uneasy premonitions. The winds were blowing in all directions, whirling dust and leaves. As the day wore on, people in town started to notice fire trucks streaking up Highway 175. Others started to watch growing columns of smoke rising around Cobb Mountain.

Other blazes during this fire season — among the worst in the state’s history — had come uneasily close, but Hingst said she never believed a fire could rake across the center of town. Even as the fire spread down from the mountains after about 4 p.m. and cars streamed away, Hingst said she packed up to evacuate on the assumption that she would soon be back.

In the wooded neighborhood of Anderson Springs west of Middletown, people were getting frantic. Margit Pataki raced from room to room, trying to decide what to take. Irvin packed her laptop but forgot it as she rushed out the door.

As the flames raced through, Pataki and other neighbors gathered at a friend’s home in Middletown, expecting to wait out the fire. They opened a bottle of Champagne as it grew closer to town.

“I guess we were just in denial,” Pataki said. Eventually, the police warned them the fire was approaching the school and several large propane tanks, and the women fled down the road and to shelter.

At Harbin Hot Springs, Harlan Sadberry, 71, the head of security, knew the situation was dire when an ember ignited a spot fire near a guest building. All afternoon, he had been visiting camp sites and cottages to tell the 533 guests about the looming danger. Most left quickly, but one guest told Sadberry that she would not leave. He finally persuaded her to go.

“It was shooting up the hill to all the conifers,” Sadberry said. “The smoke got heavier and heavier.”

He tried to hike back through the mountains to his home, but he could not make it. He believes it has been destroyed, along with thousands of paintings, drawings, photographs and negatives he created over 50 years.

As the flames closed in on him Saturday night, William Slack, a metalworker who goes by the name Jivano, abandoned the camper trailer that held all his possessions. On his way out of town, he stopped at the home of a friend who had decided to try to defend his home with a garden hose. Slack said he had dragged his friend away as falling embers set a nearby field ablaze.

“We were surrounded on three sides,” Slack, 59, said. “It was like a furnace. I’ve never seen anything so big before.”

He said he had moved to Middletown three years ago to escape the soaring cost of living in San Francisco, but was now facing a future without work or a home.

“My job is over, and I have no place to live,” he said. “I’ve got 50 bucks in my pocket, and I got a credit card payment due this week. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Others said they had to stay. Dan Beckwith, a firefighter in San Francisco, decided to hunker down at his home in Hidden Valley Lake after his girlfriend, her sister and their children evacuated. As fires crept up a ravine toward the house or tried to sneak down a hillside, Beckwith said, he doused them with hoses. When a neighbor’s fence caught fire, he said, he knocked it down and soaked it to keep it from igniting the house.

“You can’t let it get to the house,” Beckwith said. He succeeded.

After Steve Shurelian fetched his neighbor, who is frail and uses a walker, he said a tree crashed across the road, blocking his exit route from his wooded neighborhood. Trapped, they bivouacked at a community pool, soaking T-shirts in the water to use as masks against the thickening smoke. All night, Shurelian said, he hosed down spot fires and flaming bushes to try to keep the fire from surrounding them.

“I’m coughing up green stuff,” he said on Monday morning, as he ate crackers at the Red Cross shelter.

Originally from Philadelphia, Shurelian said he had become enraptured with the quiet beauty of the area, its streams and woods and hummingbirds. He said he believed the home he rented was gone.

“It’s a special area,” he said. “It was all I really required in life. Now, it’s toast.”

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