MIDDLETOWN, Calif. — As they watched the sky go black and flames race toward their homes, the artists and campers, retirees and families living in this mountain town knew it was time to flee. Some, fearing the drought-fueled fires raging across California would bring this moment to their door, had packed bags ready to go. Most had not.
So as the fire crested a ridge line on Saturday afternoon, people grabbed insurance papers and birth certificates, shoes and extra socks. They loaded up antique rugs but left behind a mother's quilts. They wrangled horses and pets. The Nelson family grabbed Tick, their chihuaha mix. Steve Shurelian, 60, picked up an ailing neighbor. Neighbors screamed at one another to get out. The embers streaked down like missiles. By night, escaping families were driving through curtains of flame.
"I felt like it was the end times," said Janis Irvin, who believes her house was destroyed. "It was red and black and boiling."
By late Monday, 11,000 firefighters across California were still battling to contain a dozen large wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes, displaced 13,000 people and turned white-fenced neighborhoods into char. A least one person has been killed, Barbara McWilliams, 72, a former special education teacher with advanced multiple sclerosis. McWilliams was unable to escape when her house in Lake County was swallowed in flames, officials said.
The blaze that began in Lake County, called the Valley fire, has burned across 61,000 acres, and was only 5 percent contained.
The fire began on Saturday, and, whipped by high winds and moving faster than even veteran firefighters had seen, forced the mandatory of evacuation of several small towns north of the fabled wine country of the Napa and Sonoma valleys. As it ripped toward Middletown, Hidden Valley Lake and other places, some residents hardly had time to dress before they fled.
In Middletown, most of downtown — including a new arts center and Noble's Saloon — survived untouched, but entire residential blocks were heaps of ash. Grape fields were scorched black. A scrim of smoke continued to rise from the tinder-dry mountains that ring the town.
A trickle of people were allowed to return Monday to inspect their homes and retrieve livestock, but hundreds more were still sleeping on cots or in tents at evacuation shelters on the northern and southern edges of the fire.
"I'm looking for my wife," said one man as he walked into the cafeteria of a Red Cross evacuation center at the Napa County Fairground, about 30 miles from Middletown. Over crumb cake and pancakes, neighbors reunited, asked about each other's homes and recalled how the erratic, whipping winds had brought the fire down from the mountainsides and transformed their town into an inferno.
"It did things fire isn't supposed to do," said Capt. Mike Walton, a bulldozer operator with Cal Fire, the state fire agency, who escorted a friend into Middletown to see his destroyed home. He pointed to the black skeletons of trees and a neighborhood grid reduced to ashes. "Fire does weird stuff. But look at this."
Middletown, population 1,300, is a winding mountain drive away from the wealth of Napa Valley's vineyards, a town that residents say is part cowboy and part hippie. The clothing-optional Harbin Hot Springs — destroyed in the blaze — was a cultural anchor for many artists and liberal transplants from San Francisco who said they fell in love with the mountains and Middletown's small-town eclecticism.
"We're more like family here than a town," said Deanna Hingst, 32, as she stood in her family's charred back yard. All that was left of the house was an interior brick wall, a chimney and her mother's Corningware cook set.
Other blazes during this fire season — among the worst in the state's history — had come uneasily close, but Hingst said she never believed a fire could rake across the center of town. Even as the fire spread down from the mountains after about 4 p.m. and cars streamed away, Hingst said she packed up to evacuate on the assumption that she would soon be back.
According to Mark Ghilarducci of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, state and local agencies are working together to find out more details about McWilliams' death as well as determining how many people are unaccounted for.
Four firefighters injured early in the fight were in stable condition, state fire officials said.
"We're really in a battle with nature, and nature is more powerful than we are," said Gov. Jerry Brown, who declared a state of emergency in Lake and Napa counties.
On Monday he was briefed on wildfires that have devoured tens of thousands of acres in Northern California.
Brown called for more funding for firefighting and said the fundamental obligation of government is public safety.
"This is damn serious stuff," he said.
As tankers and helicopters waited on standby, flight commanders were unsure Monday whether they would be able to begin an assault on the Valley fire.
A dozen wildfires are burning in California. The largest has scorched more than 135,000 acres in the southern Sierra Nevada since it ignited July 31, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.