AP/Elaine Thompson
A firefighter stands near the Valley Fire in Middletown, California, on September 13, 2015. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.

‘Entire Neighborhoods Turned to Ash’: Wildfire Sweeps Over Two Counties, Woman Killed

Richard Walker

The nightmare moved through Middletown, California with the speed of a train and the roar of a tornado.

Only a day before – on Saturday, September 12 – life in this small resort community of 1,400 residents seemed typical. Visitors dined or played at the Twin Pine Casino and Hotel on the Middletown Pomo Rancheria. Families packed lunches and headed to Middletown Trailside Nature Preserve or one of the area’s lakes. Hardester’s Market & Hardware in downtown was humming with shoppers buying what they needed for the next week.

Then, at about 1:24 p.m., a tragic convergence took place in Glenbrook, 11.5 miles northwest as the crow flies: a fire, swift winds, and a landscape turned tinder dry by drought. Within 30 minutes, sheriff’s officers were receiving calls for help evacuating the area from fire officials and residents; by nightfall, the fire claimed the life of an elderly woman who was not able to get out of her home without assistance.

“The resident was apparently unable to self-evacuate and responders were unable to make it to her home before the fire engulfed the structure,” Lake County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Brooks reported.

“The Sheriff’s Office and all first responders express their condolences to those who have been affected by this disaster. We are hopeful that the fire does not claim any more lives.”

By 4:10 p.m. September 13, the wind-whipped wildfire had consumed 50,000 acres -- including much of the communities of Cobb and Hidden Valley Lake and Middletown, according to news reports – in its march into neighboring Napa County. By evening September 13, the fire had grown to 62,000 acres, with 10 percent containment. Hundreds of homes and hundreds of other structures were destroyed; another 9,000 structures were threatened, according to Cal Fire.

The wall of fire moved so fast that residents in its path had very little time to react. Their only choice: flee now. Some 10,000 people in Lake and Napa counties had been evacuated and more than 40 structures destroyed by nightfall September 12, according to KPIX Channel 5 in San Francisco, which called the wild conflagration “a monstrous fire of historic proportions.”

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency.

“It’s a huge fire and it moved very quickly,” KPIX’s Joe Vazquez reported September 12 from what was left of Middletown. “The scope of it we’re not sure about, but we’ve seen home after home just leveled to the ground, smoldering in ruins, entire neighborhoods turned to ash.”

Region wide, at least 5,000 homes and businesses were without power, Cal Fire reported September 13. The Geysers, a geothermal power plant in Middletown, was reportedly destroyed.

Four firefighters were hospitalized with second-degree burns; they were expected to make full recoveries, KPIX reported. Volunteers assisted evacuees at shelters set up at churches, fairgrounds, and schools.

The region is the home of Big Valley Pomo, Habematolel Pomo, Middletown Pomo and Robinson Pomo, and Pomo citizens live in the affected communities and on reservations – known as “rancherias” here – in the area. The Big Valley Pomo Tribe sheltered evacuees in its gymnasium.

“Middletown sustained heavy damage. Many buildings lost. We don’t know if that was one of them,” the Lake County Record-Bee responded September 12 to an ICTMN question over social media in regards to the Lake County Tribal Health Clinic in Middletown possibly being destroyed.

Twin Pine Casino & Hotel had survived the fire September 12 but was closed. The casino posted a notice on Facebook: “The casino is still standing and has not suffered any fire damage. The casino is temporarily closed and will remain closed until further notice.”

On September 14, 1,448 fire personnel in 40 crews, 157 engines, four air tankers, 10 helicopters, 16 dozers and 53 water tenders were battling the blaze. Agencies involved include the National Guard, CAL FIRE, California Highway Patrol, California Department of Corrections, South Lake County Fire Protection District, sheriff’s offices from Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties, and many local fire departments.

Michelle Hammock, Pomo, recommended that people from outside the area check #valleyfire online for ways to help the recovery effort. “There are a few places that are offering to collect donations of food, clothing and hygiene needs for displaced residents,” she said. “Definitely would be nice to see if nearby folks out of the danger zones could have a way to offer help and/or homes, tents, safe camp, cooking supplies for humans and places for livestock.”

Others said tents are needed. “So many are without homes right now,” one resident said. “The campgrounds are free for them right now but people need camping supplies, and just about everything. It's pretty devastating.” Another area resident recommended sending gift cards for necessities. Looking ahead to the aftermath, he said residents will need help cleaning up.

Another resident recommended simply, “Pray.”

The now-designated Valley Fire is one of seven active fires that have consumed 358,348 acres of parched California landscape. According to KPIX, this fire is the fifth in Lake County this fire season, but the others were in rural areas; this one is chewing through towns.

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