CLEARLAKE OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Several hundred of the thousands of people driven from their homes by a massive Northern California wildfire began to trickle back to their neighborhoods Thursday, and some saw what they most feared: nothing.
“All of it is gone. It’s so surreal,” Layna Rivas said through tears just after she discovered her home in Clearlake Oaks had burned to the ground. “It looked like a bomb went off everywhere. It’s all black.”
Rivas had eight chickens when she left but found only one walking through the rubble.
Forty-three homes were destroyed and 13,000 people were ordered or warned to evacuate as the blaze chewed through nearly 109 square miles of dry brush.
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About 800 evacuees were allowed to return home Thursday, and the number could increase in the next 24 hours as firefighting operations wind down.
“We have crews coming in and out of those tiny roadways,” state fire spokeswoman Blanca Mercado said. “It’s not just the fire, there’s still a lot of things behind the scenes logistically.”
Residents were anxious to check on their pets and possessions, but many were stuck camping in cars and trailers, drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups and hoping their houses had not been reduced to ash.
Cassandra Raffaelli and others were staying in the parking lot at a Moose Lodge, a fraternal organization that was serving food to evacuees.
She had been there since Sunday and doesn’t know what she will find when she returns home to Spring Valley, a town in a parched rural area 100 miles north of San Francisco.
“To go home, to go to your house, see it (burned) and stuff, that’s my major fear,” she said.
The flames mowed down some dwellings and left others untouched near Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake fully within California. Some houses a mile apart were completely burned, while nearby buildings and trees weren’t touched by the flames.
Chairs, burned books and broken dishes sat in piles of ash, and burned-out cars dotted the landscape. At one home, a metal table and chair sat in the middle of its scorched foundation. The eerie quiet was broken only by chirping birds and the sound of helicopters overhead.
Amid the destruction, crews were gaining ground, getting the blaze close to halfway contained after more than a week fighting its erratic behavior. It’s the largest of 23 fires statewide and has the attention of nearly a third of the 10,000 firefighters dispatched to blazes in drought-stricken California.
Wildfires throughout the West have fed off dry conditions in Washington state, Montana, Arizona and elsewhere.
California Gov. Jerry Brown visited fire crews and said the state is hotter and drier than it’s ever been, making blazes more severe and extending fire season.
“This is the beginning of the fire season, and it’s acting like it’s the end,” Brown said.
Thomas Tompkins, of Spring Valley, which so far hasn’t been affected by the fire, has been living in an RV with his wife, Beth, since Saturday. They packed their belongings, grabbed their two dogs and two cats, and got out quickly.
“Hopefully today they’ll let us back in,” he said. “This is nice, but after a while, I have to go back to work.”
At the Moose Lodge, there was a sense of safety. The club has been feeding breakfast, lunch and dinner to about 80 people and was stocked with water, snacks and bedding.
“The overwhelming response from the community would bring a tear to your eye,” said Joe Welz, a retiree from Spring Valley who evacuated. “This is humanity at its best.”
Bender reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff in Clearlake Oaks, California, Yara Bishara in Phoenix and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.