By Ian Lovett and Ashely Southall, The New York Times, September 13, 2015
LOS ANGELES — The fire moved fast, faster than even veteran firefighters had seen. As it ripped down a hill toward Middletown, two hours north of San Francisco, some residents hardly had time to dress before they fled.
“We were surrounded by fire,” said Maddie Ross, 25, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College who fled with her grandparents on Saturday from their home in nearby Hidden Valley Lake.
They did not even have time to put their shoes on. “It looked like hell everywhere,” Ms. Ross said. “It was terrifying, truly terrifying. I’ve never been in a situation like that. We all felt like the world was coming to an end.”
By Sunday afternoon, up to 1,000 homes and commercial structures had been burned by the so-called Valley fire. They were the latest casualties of the worst drought in California’s recorded history, which has left hillsides thick with dry brush and made wildfires more common than ever.
But even in the midst of a fire season that threatens to be the longest and most destructive the American West has endured, the Valley fire stood out for just how fast it devoured the communities in Lake County.
The fire had grown to 50,000 acres by Sunday afternoon, and half of Middletown was in ashes, said Scott McLean, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Lake and Napa Counties on Sunday.
“I’m standing in the middle of a bombed-out town,” Mr. McLean said. “I’m on a block of burned-down structures. There’s the frame of a mobile home — that’s all that’s left. The cars are burned-out hulks. The trees look like skeletons. There’s a porch swing, a bathtub. I’m seeing the remnants of somebody’s life.”
He added: “This year is different. The fires don’t need that wind, but unfortunately this fire had that wind component, and it was extremely dynamic.”
Dry conditions from the drought, high temperatures and gusty winds were contributing to “explosive” conditions, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for Cal Fire.
Since January, firefighters in California have responded to nearly 6,800 wildfires burning 545,000 acres, Mr. Berlant said. Cal Fire handled 5,000 of the wildfires, over 1,500 more than average, he said. The fires handled by Cal Fire this year have burned more than 150,000 acres, compared with 80,000 per year on average.
Across the state, Cal Fire was fighting 13 fires, including a large blaze in Amador and Calaveras Counties, where the governor declared a state of emergency on Friday.
The United States Forest Service, meanwhile, was also battling a handful of fires that had engulfed more than 250,000 acres of national forests from the Oregon border to an area east of Fresno.
Efforts to get ahead of the Valley fire have so far failed, as its embers continue to jump past firefighters and move to new areas, where they have to form a new containment line.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter how many firefighters we put on it — the fire just jumps right over us,” Mr. Berlant said.
The Valley fire began on Cobb Mountain on Saturday, but was soon funneled down by 20-mile-an-hour winds toward Middletown and the surrounding communities. In only a few hours, half the town was destroyed.
The Ross family was in such a hurry that it left behind family photos and medication for Ms. Ross’s grandparents. Only the family’s dogs were taken along.
“The police just said, ‘Run!’ ” Ms. Ross said.
It took the family an hour to get out of Hidden Valley Lake because the roads were packed with hundreds of people trying to get out, she said. Others, in their haste, abandoned their cars on the road.
The Ross family fled west to Ukiah, where it was staying at the Discovery Inn. The hotel was full of Hidden Valley Lake residents, who fled in trucks packed with supplies, pets and small livestock, Ms. Ross said. The area is full of horse farms, and many of the animals were left behind.
Other owners managed to take their horses with them to an American Red Cross shelter at the Napa Valley fairgrounds in Calistoga. About 600 people had taken refuge there on Sunday, and many of them were “thunderstruck,” said Gary Kraus, a former fire chief who is a Calistoga city councilman.
“There’s a sense of disbelief,” he said. “It will be an absolute miracle if we don’t start hearing about fatalities up there. You get heart attacks, accidents in cars, because this fire came through so quick.”
The fire threatened to scorch the California wine industry at harvest time. Nearly half the nation’s wineries are in California, concentrated in the Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Harvest season begins in late summer and many wineries see an uptick in traffic.
Many of the workers who help keep Napa Valley’s famous wineries running live in the section of Lake County that was hit by the wildfire, said Michael Dunsford, the vice mayor of Calistoga, who owns a restaurant in town. The chef at his restaurant believed his house was gone, as did the manager of a restaurant down the street. With the road back to Middletown closed, neither of them had been able to check.
“Lake County is the more affordable place to live,” Mr. Dunsford said, “so that’s where a lot of the employees for the wineries and the restaurants and hotels go. They’re the ones who are now being hit hardest and losing their homes.”