Scope of devastation clearer as wildfire evacuees return

Destroyed homes and vehicles scorched by the Valley fire line Jefferson St. in Middletown, Calif, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. According to fire officials, the blaze ranks as the sixth worst wildfire in California history after destroying more than 1,000 structures, burning more than 75,000 acres and leaving at least three people dead. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Destroyed homes and vehicles scorched by the Valley fire line Jefferson St. in Middletown, Calif, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. According to fire officials, the blaze ranks as the sixth worst wildfire in California history after destroying more than 1,000 structures, burning more than 75,000 acres and leaving at least three people dead. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

CALIFORNIA (AP) – The scope of devastation from one of California’s most destructive wildfires is becoming clearer and so too is the size of the humanitarian need in one of the state’s poorer counties.

Gov. Jerry Brown requested a presidential disaster declaration on Monday, noting that more than 1,000 homes had been confirmed destroyed, with the number likely to go higher as assessment continues in Lake County, 90 miles north of San Francisco. Many others are damaged or don’t have power, leaving thousands in need of shelter.

“The biggest challenge is there aren’t enough hotel rooms in Lake County,” county Supervisor Jim Comstock said Monday. He lost most of his 1,700-acre ranch to fire but kept his house.

Comstock said options for housing are limited in the rural county of small towns linked by winding roads. The Twin Pine Casino and Hotel in Middletown set up beds in its event center, but hotel rooms are reserved for displaced tribal members and employees. An evacuation center at the nearby Napa County Fairgrounds is housing about 500 people in tents and campers, he said.

In a letter to President Obama, Brown noted the fire that started Sept. 12 has burned more than 117 square miles and killed three people. At its peak, more than 19,000 people were ordered to evacuate. A “major disaster” declaration releases federal money for recovery efforts.

In the same letter, Brown also sought a declaration for another fire in Calaveras and Amador counties that started Sept. 9. That fire destroyed more than 500 homes and killed two people.

Firefighters have made significant progress and many evacuations have been lifted in the Lake County fire. But schools in the Middletown Unified School District are closed for a second week and one in the community of Cobb won’t reopen for months due to fire damage.

Downtown Middletown was spared, however. A bank, auto repair shop and massage business were open for business Monday. Firefighters helped homeowners sift through debris for rings and other valuables. One woman was able to salvage some of her collectible Elvis plates.

Rob Brown, another Lake County supervisor, said they are trying to match homeless residents with semi-permanent housing, either through empty vacation homes or rooms at the long-shuttered Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa in Kelseyville, California.

“That’s just some of the patchwork of solutions we’re looking for,” he said. “We’re trying to keep people as close to their original community as possible.”

People who have lost their homes or whose homes were too damaged to occupy continued to find their own makeshift solutions.

Annette Lee, a 43-year-old executive dean of Yuba College in Lake County’s Clearlake, said she is staying at her late grandfather’s vacant home in Nice, on the northern edge of the county.

Her home in a neighborhood of 5-acre lots called Hidden Valley Ranchos was scarred, but OK. Her husband, Shane Lee, spent the day cleaning the refrigerator and meeting with insurance adjustors while she returned to work.

“People have been in survival mode all week, and the shock has kept everyone going,” she said. “There’s a lot of resiliency, but at the same time, it’s overwhelming.”

Not so lucky was the home her parents built 30 years ago, also in the Ranchos. All that remained was melted metal and ash, nothing like the gracious two-story home Lee said she could still envision, with its fruit orchard and a vegetable garden prized by her mother.

On Monday, her parents, Bonnie and Jay Albertson searched the charred lot for their cat, Blue.

Krystal La Plante, 25, said she and her boyfriend had been staying in a trailer in Napa County before bunking with a friend nearby in Lake County. They returned to their three-bedroom home in Anderson Springs on Saturday. She found a ceramic drip coffee pot and one of her pottery pieces.

Otherwise, her little “piece of heaven” flanked by trees as high as she could see, was gone. “I kept walking around asking, ‘Where is my home?’ I don’t understand why it’s not here. This isn’t where I live,’ ” she said Monday.

At least, La Plante said, she had a moment to say goodbye before she fled with two dogs and two cats.

“I stood there for like a minute and I started crying,” La Plante said. “I know I’m talking to a house here, but I said I hope I come back.”

AP photographer Noah Berger in Middletown, California, contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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