Dispatch from Valley Fire evacuation camp in California

State officials are calling the Lake County blaze one of the fastest-moving fires in memory.

 

Update, Sept. 15The Valley Fire expanded to 67,000 acres, with just 15 percent containment. 585 homes were destroyed.

An impromptu village of tents and camper trailers sprang up Sunday at the Napa County Fairgrounds in the town of Calistoga as thousands fled catastrophic wildfires in Lake and Napa counties in Northern California. 

State fire officials are calling the Valley Fire one of the fastest-moving fires in memory. The fire broke out at about 1:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon on Cobb Mountain, near Middletown, and rapidly ballooned out of control. It has currently scorched over 61,000 acres and is just 5 percent contained. Nearly ten thousand structures are currently threatened and a thousand or more homes are estimated to have already been lost.

  • Evacuees rest outside of a family member's borrowed motor home after fleeing the Valley Fire in Lake County. Lisa (no last name given, second from right) says, "We tried to stay to save our goats but couldn't do it. So we just opened the gate, set them free and hope for the best. I have no idea what's happened to them."

    Danielle Venton
  • Volunteers sort through piles of donated clothes, blankets and supplies at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga.

    Danielle Venton
  • A line of tents stand ready for Valley Fire evacuees at the Red Cross evacuee camp in Calistoga.

    Danielle Venton

Strong winds, intense drought and years of fire suppression have laid the groundwork for a blaze that was described by one firefighter as "apocalyptic" due to its speed, size and destructive force. It comes on the heels of an already-harsh fire season. A quarter million acres have burned in the state this year, a high number compared to the five-year average of 85,000 for the same interval. 

Already the flames have claimed at least one life. A disabled woman died in her home on the southern side of Cobb Mountain on Saturday, according to the Lake County sheriff's office.

Residents had to get out fast. After getting dinner in Middletown on Saturday, Faith Anderson arrived home with her brother to find her neighborhood surrounded by flames. They first worked to save their neighbors' horses, before saving her own: an 8-year-old dun gelding named Dusty. 

By Sunday at the Red Cross evacuation center in Calistoga, another Anderson, John Anderson, smoked a cigarette bare-chested and in cargo shorts under the trees. "It was pretty hairy. As an old boy-scout, I had us prepped for an emergency," he said. He wasn't home on Saturday, but visiting a friend in Napa, well out of harm's way. His wife and daughter evacuated on their own. "It was the one day I wasn't there. Years of preparation, whoosh! Gone!" he said. John's 8-year-old daughter Sydney was reunited with her dad at the evacuees' camp. 

Sydney said the idea of not having a house anymore was scary, but she seemed to be making the best of it. It was fun playing on the grass — there is very little grass at her house — and she liked sleeping in a tent. Before she left home, she made sure to bring her favorite stuffed animal, a red teddy bear named "Fireheart" and her bow and arrow. Though Sydney’s family had their own tents, not everyone arrived with shelter. Throughout the day, volunteers set up row after row of donated tents, placing blankets and pillows inside for weary evacuees.

Nearby, in front of the center where volunteers prepared food donated by local restaurants, businesses and community members, some evacuees jammed on guitars and drums. 

Gathered around a picnic table, a group of men speculated about the future. "All these people around here are my neighbors, friends, customers where I work," said George Delao, an employee at C J S Ranch Supply & Apparel in Middletown, which he had heard burned down. "I don't have a job to go to. But I have a hammer, and he has a hammer, and he does too. We can rebuild." Eager as the men were to get their lives on track, they knew it’d be several more days before they were able to return.

Camped in a tent trailer, Greg Lomakin, a resident of the town of Cobb on Cobb Mountain, was less upbeat. "It's all gone, there are no trees. There is nothing to make it pretty anymore," he said, speculating that his family would probably move on. "There's nothing even to rebuild with. You'd be living in an ash tray for a couple years at least." 

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