The embers are still hot around the charred frame of what remains of Chuck Navin’s home in Middletown, California. In the distance, the billowing smoke of the massive wildfire that sparked an evacuation of towns in the northern part of the state is still visible.
Some 23,000 people have been displaced by two fires in California that have destroyed at least 585 homes since Saturday and continue to threaten another 9,000 structures. The fire in rural Lake County, less than 100 miles (160 km) north of San Francisco, has consumed more than 104 square miles (269 sq km) and as of Wednesday morning was only 30% contained. Another blaze rages 120 miles to the south-east. At least one person has been killed.
“The house burned in 10 minutes,” Navin said on Tuesday. He was one of only a handful of residents who braved the smoky air and the sight of devastation on the abandoned streets of this town just 20 minutes north of Napa in the heart of California’s wine country.
“The police and others told us we had about an hour to evacuate on Saturday, but it was more like five minutes and the flames were all around,” he told the Guardian, motioning to where he was forced to lie down in a makeshift trench when the blaze hit the area. A former military man, he said he refused to abandon his post when help was needed.
“I tried to save two dogs, but the older one bit me and ran off,” he continued. “But when I came back two days later, she was still alive. It was nice in the face of all this.”
Navin was one of thousands evacuated from Lake County towns. In nearby Calistoga, the Red Cross and local volunteers from the surrounding areas have set up a refugee camp; tents and vehicles line the town’s fairgrounds as food, clothing and other essentials are handed out.
Knowing the backroads of Cobb Mountain saved Krystal Peregrina and her family’s lives on Saturday as the mother of three raced down the fire-ravaged mountain to escape the inferno.
“We had no warning signals, no notification from authorities, or any guidance on what to do and when to evacuate. The fire moved from across the mountain to right beside our house in 30 minutes,” said Peregrina, 33, who has lost her home, four cars and most of her family’s possessions in the fire that is still burning west of Sacramento.
Peregrina is now living at the Calistoga camp and had yet to return to Cobb to see the remains of her home, but she said she had already seen videos of her neighborhood. “All of our house is ash. I saw in a video someone took that our house is gone and now my husband and I are trying to figure out what we are going to do next,” she said.
As her two-year-old son played with a pair of donated dinosaur toys, Peregrina sorted through a box of used clothes she had received from the shelter. “If I just had a little bit more time I would have taken our photo albums and other things I can’t replace,” she said. Next to her tent sat two drawers full of vital records and other documents from a file cabinet that was in her home.
She said that on Saturday afternoon she started seeing helicopters flying and dropping fire retardant near Cobb Mountain, but she did not hear or see any warnings to evacuate.
“At 2.15pm on Saturday I started to really worry after hearing explosions from the fires all around us. I went on the website of CalFire but they didn’t have anything about the fire,” she said.
She finally called 911 to see what she should do and the dispatcher told her that she should leave her home immediately and that the fire was close to her home.
“My husband and I were in the car with the kids within 20 minutes of talking to 911, but by that point the fire was chasing us down Cobb Mountain and my kids were screaming in the car as we were driving through the road with tall red flames on three sides of us,” said Peregrina.
The first message from CalFire about Cobb Mountain on Nixle, a service that allows government agencies to send messages to local residents via email, text or web, was posted at 6.37pm on Saturday – more than three hours after Peregrina had left her home.
Meanwhile about eight miles down the mountain in Middletown photographer Sharon Dawson was scrambling to get her equipment, artwork, photographs and some essentials for herself and her family after a friend informed her that the fire was coming toward the small town.
“My friend is an EMT [Emergency Medical Technician] and she messaged me on Facebook telling me to hurry up and get out. I didn’t think the fire was that close but I listened to her and starting packing,” Dawson said.
She says that they did not receive any signals or hear sirens indicating they should evacuate at that point, but she did receive an automated voice message on Sunday, almost 18 hours after she had arrived at the shelter, saying she needed to evacuate.
“I understand that it was a quick-moving fire but the authorities needed to communicate with the public faster and give clear instructions,” said Dawson.
A CalFire spokesman, David Shew, said that their process was that once they recognized that a fire was growing they informed law enforcement, who are responsible for informing people and getting them evacuated. Middletown residents say police did not inform them in any way to evacuate but there were officers out all over the city.
“We have to learn from this incident and develop a system to send mass warnings and evacuation information, especially for the upper rural areas like Cobb Mountain,” said Shew.
He said that he was certain that the Lake County board of supervisors would be talking about an early warning system in the coming months. He also said that improving and implementing codes of defensible space would be important, requiring homeowners to keep 30ft of space from their home free of dead plants and grass and create open spaces between shrubs and trees up to 100ft from their home.
“I just want to get my valuables and then search for a new place in this world to set up shop,” said Andrew Yavelow, who said he did not know whether his home in Middletown was still standing. He said this was not the first time his home had burned down. The first time, years ago in New York City, was a major catalyst for him to move west.
Now he and his colleagues Jim Gilkerson and Deanne Duteil at Harbin Hot Springs, a popular resort that has been razed to the ground, have been forced out of their homes and into Calistoga.
Gilkerson, who has lived in Middletown for almost 15 years, remained optimistic. “It’s amazing how quick people mobilized and gave assistance to those of us who need it,” he said of the community in Calistoga.
“It’s still surreal to think about,” said Duteil. “We are just waiting to know for certain what has happened to our homes. It’s been a difficult time for all of us because we hear from some people that our houses are still standing, but we won’t know for sure until we see with our own eyes.”
Gilkerson said the online map on the California department of forestry and fire protection’s CalFire information website gave changing information about whether his house was safe. “It’s going to be a few days until we know.”
Andrew Vance, a teacher at Lake County International school, said he had heard that his home had been completely destroyed, pointing to his knee to show the height of the frame that remains.
“I’ve been here since Saturday night,” he said. “The winds were blowing 40-60mph and he didn’t have enough time to do anything but get out and people just left.”
But he praised the Calistoga camp volunteers. “The locals started cooking food and have an energy that is nice to see,” he said. “They are showing love and it holds so you feel OK. It gives us faith in people.”
Anna Rodriguez was returning from work at a hot springs resort in Calistoga to her home in Hidden Valley, a small town just north of Middletown, last Saturday when she realized the journey would be impossible. “As I passed Middletown it was all dark and I never saw the light of day again,” she said.
She tried to call the six family members she lived with, but the phones were dead. “We got separated when the evacuation order happened. We tried calling but it just wouldn’t connect,” she said. Her parents and siblings were all able to make it safely to Calistoga.
Neighbors in the camp have set up their tents next to one another, said Clint Barber, 25, a firefighter from Middletown. “We are a strong community and we’ll bounce back,” he said. “Everyone knows each other and if someone’s house is lost, everyone will offer their own in place.”
Cobb Mountain, Middletown and many other areas of Lake County are still under evacuation orders because downed fire poles and smoldering debris still pose dangers to residents.
Edward Kruspe, 24, and his wife, Leena, said they did not know if their home was still standing on Cobb Mountain. “We are trying not to freak out until we know what happened to our home, but not knowing is hard,” said Kruspe, who said he and his two kids ran out of their house in their pyjamas because they didn’t know they had to evacuate until the fire was a block away from their home. He said he was not able to get any of their important documents out, just a few computers right before he left.