The Valley fire has scorched Middletown and Cobb near Santa Rosa. About 585 homes have been destroyed and 9,000 structures are still threatened. Many people in the rural communities are lost in a haze of shock and disbelief.
Michael Thomas is on his way to his father-in-law’s ranch to help round up rattled cattle and horses. He says the old man refused to leave his animals behind when the area was evacuated.
Thomas stopped just outside of town near the airport. The air-strip is a desolate blackened field.
He squints. He pulls his shirt up over his face.
“Smells like poison. Smells like a barbecue gone wrong, probably like a burning house times a thousand,” says Thomas.
The smoky haze lays thickly over rolling hills. Power lines lie strewn across the roads. Timbers are smoldering.
“Looks like an atomic bomb went off in the area.”
A chimney is all that’s left of Thomas’s favorite Mexican restaurant.
Only a few businesses are open, including a Chevron station. The owner is Paleni Velloo. He feels lucky that the flames came close to his business, but damaged nothing.
“The fire line is almost in a straight line to our property line and took a left. Everything behind. 100 homes behind us are destroyed," says Velloo.
The fire moved swiftly torching entire subdivisions, leaving other neighborhoods untouched as it swept through.
The golf course is still green, but the houses along the fairway are rubble.
Lonnie Thompson was relatively lucky. His yellow farmhouse was untouched by the fire. But, 50 feet away a lone horse stands in smoldering ashes inside the skeleton of a barn.
“When the fire, when it came up by the shop it come in a hurry but I had everything cleared out pretty well. It hit that loose hay where the goats had been feeding, and then it just caught all that other hay on fire, and it burnt to the ground.”
Thompson estimates his losses at about $50,000.
But, his main concern now is thirsty cattle. He points to empty troughs.
“Bone dry,” he says.
His herds have gone three days without drinking anything because both water and power for pumps are down.
A crew of firefighters pulls up to fill buckets the size of kiddie pools.
The cows lap up the liquid quickly.
Thompson says he’s taking it one step at time.
“It is what it is. So, I'm just going to have to deal with it. Maybe I’ll go to work on a trash truck!" he chuckles.
Linda Garnhart isn't laughing. She thought she was one of the lucky ones, but then the wind changed directions.
“One moment we we’re watching the flames and sitting there on a swing set. And twenty minutes later we were in the car with black smoke piling over us hoping we could get out.”
She and her four kids escaped. She returned to Middletown for the first time in three days.
“I just went to look at it. I had four houses in the middle of the block. They’re all dust."
Garnhart is wide-eyed and her body shakes slightly.
“When we we’re leaving my son’s baby pictures were sitting right there, and I didn’t grab them because I thought we would be back in the morning,” she sighs.
But, she hasn’t lost hope.
“You know it’s really sad. But, we get another chance. You know? That's what we (residents) were just talking about in the store. Will we make the town better than it was?”
She says the future will depend on how many of her neighbors decide to stay and rebuild together.