Ferocious wildfire devastates California mountain town

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon
Death Reported in California Wildfire Drama

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (AP) -- Earlier this summer, this small mountain town north of San Francisco opened its modest high school to residents fleeing an unusually ferocious wildfire nearby.

Now it is Middletown itself that has been evacuated - and gutted - by another blaze that shocked firefighters with its strength and speed.

The town's small cluster of shops and cafes was spared, but behind them flames propelled by erratic winds zigzagged down leafy streets, torching some houses while sparing others. On Monday, some residents returned to find nothing left of their homes but concrete foundations and smoldering rubble.

See images of the devastating California wildfires:

45 PHOTOS
Northern California, Middletown wildfires destroy 400 homes Butte
See Gallery
Ferocious wildfire devastates California mountain town
Firefighters keep watch as the 'Valley Fire' continues to flare up in the town of Middletown, California on September 15, 2015. Wildfires sweeping across California are threatening the US state's famed Sequoia trees, with firefighters scrambling to protect the national treasures. AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighting plane drops a load of fire retardant over a smoldering hillside Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. The fire that sped through Middletown and other parts of rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco, has continued to burn since Saturday despite a massive firefighting effort. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
California Highway Patrol Officer Kory Reynolds, right, is hugged by local resident Sabrina Jose after she was escorted back to her home, which survived a wildfire days earlier, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. Jose, a single mother, was given 15 minutes to collect belongings and the family cat. Aided by drought, the flames have consumed more than 109 square since the fire sped Saturday through rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco. Cooler weather helped crews gain ground and the fire was 30 percent contained Wednesday. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Deanna Hingst puts her arms on a massive tree and weeps outside the ashen remains of her family's home after finding the tree singed but apparently still healthy Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and sending thousands of residents fleeing highways lined with buildings, guardrails and cars still in flames. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Deanna Hingst, right, embraces her mother Shirley Leuzinger as they stand at the family's destroyed home Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and sending thousands of residents fleeing highways lined with buildings, guardrails and cars still in flames. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: A fallen sign lies near a long a line of burnt trees by State Route 175 during the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 in Middletown, California. The fast-moving fire has consumed 40,000 acres and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: A playground slide stands undamaged among smoldering rubble during the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 in Middletown, California. The fast-moving fire has consumed 40,000 acres and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
SAN ANDREAS, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: A burned truck and structures are seen at the Butte Fire on September 13, 2015 near San Andreas, California. California governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in Amador and Calaveras counties where the 100-square-mile wildfire has burned scores of structures so far and is threatening 6,400 in the historic Gold Country of the Sierra Nevada foothills. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
San Bernardino National Forest service fire fighter's Logan Costello, left and Andy Duran mop up a back burn near General Grant tree at Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)
A sign hangs above an entryway to a home destroyed by fire Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. Two of California’s fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook at several Northern California towns, destroying over a hundred homes and sending residents fleeing Sunday. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Firefighter Thomas Fitzpatrick walks past the remains of a house destroyed in a wildfire several days earlier, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. The fire that sped through Middletown and other parts of rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco, has continued to burn since Saturday despite a massive firefighting effort. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
San Bernardino National Forest service fire fighter's Logan Costello, left and Andy Duran mop up a back burn near General Grant tree at Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)
Power lines continue to burn along Highway 175 outside Middleton, Calif., Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and sending thousands of residents fleeing highways lined with buildings, guardrails and cars still in flames. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
The charred remains of an apartment complex remain that burned from a wildfire tow days earlier stand Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and sending thousands of residents fleeing highways lined with buildings, guardrails and cars still in flames. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A video operator uses a mask as protetion against smoke and ash while filming the remains of an apartment building lost in a wildfire two days earlier, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and sending thousands of residents fleeing highways lined with buildings, guardrails and cars still in flames. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Utility worker Michael Quinliven looks over a charred 130-foot ponderosa pine as a stump burns next to it Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. Utility crews worked to remove fire-damaged trees that took down power lines and threatened further damage following a wildfire there two days earlier. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and sending thousands of residents fleeing highways lined with buildings, guardrails and cars still in flames. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A firefighter with the Montezuma Fire District puts out hot spots on the remains of a home Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in Lake and Napa Counties after a wildfire charred more than 60 square miles within 12 hours, prompting thousands to flee their homes. Brown said Sunday the declaration will expedite debris removal and waive fees to people who need to replace official documents lost in the fire. The blaze, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, has destroyed an unconfirmed number of homes and other buildings and damaged highways and other infrastructure.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
An abandoned burned out truck remains in a residential neighborhood near Cobb, California on September 15, 2015. According to Cal Fire, the Valley Fire has burned 585 homes and 67,000 acres (27,114 hectares). The Valley Fire and the Butte Fire, that erupted at the weekend killing at least one person, has forced the evacuation of more than 23,000 people. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Burned out remains of the popular nudist destination, Harbin Hot Springs is seen after the Valley fire roared through the area near Middletown, California on September 14, 2015. Firefighters on Monday battled devastating blazes in northern California that have reduced hundreds of homes to smoldering ruins and killed an elderly disabled woman unable to flee the flames. State disaster officials said the fast-moving infernos in northern California had consumed more than 100,000 acres (more than 50,000 hectares), forcing thousands to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Burned out remains of the popular nudist destination Harbin Hot Springs are seen after the Valley fire roared through the area near Middletown, California on September 14, 2015. According to Cal Fire, the fire has exploded to 60,000 acres and burned hundreds of homes. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
A figure of a small deer stands outside a building destroyed by fire Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, in Middletown , Calif. California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in Lake and Napa Counties after a wildfire charred more than 60 square miles within 12 hours, prompting thousands to flee their homes. Brown said Sunday the declaration will expedite debris removal and waive fees to people who need to replace official documents lost in the fire. The blaze, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, has destroyed an unconfirmed number of homes and other buildings and damaged highways and other infrastructure.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
A downed power line continues to burn along Highway 175 with a vineyard in the background Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, near Middletown, Calif. Two of California’s fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook at several Northern California towns, destroying over a hundred homes and sending residents fleeing Sunday. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Utility worker Michael Quinliven shovels dirt onto a burning stump so he can cut down the charred ponderosa pine next to it Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. Utility crews worked to remove fire-damaged trees that took down power lines and threatened further damage following a wildfire there two days earlier. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and sending thousands of residents fleeing highways lined with buildings, guardrails and cars still in flames. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A firefighter stands near a wildfire in Middletown, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: Firefighters with the Marin County Fire Department's Tamalpais Fire Crew monitor a backfire as they battle the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 near Middletown, California. The fast-moving fire has consumed 50,000 acres after growing 40,000 acres in twelve hours and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
Firefighters stand guard as flames from the Butte Fire approach a containment line,Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015 in San Andreas, Calif.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: A home is consumed by the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 in Middletown, California. The fast-moving fire has consumed 40,000 acres and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation inmate work crew builds a containment line ahead of flames from the Butte Fire, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015 near San Andreas, Calif.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
A firefighter turns his head from the flame of the Butte Fire burning near San Andreas, Calif., Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Firefighters create a firebreak near a home in Middletown, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Firefighters create a firebreak near a home in Middletown, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: The evening sky lit by the Valley Fire is seen on September 13, 2015 in Middletown, California.ÊThe fast-moving fire has consumed 50,000 acres after it grew 40,000 acres in twelve hours and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
An inmate from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation stands guard as flames from the Butte Fire approach a containment line Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015 near San Andreas, Calif.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
A firefighter douses flames from a backfire while battling the Butte fire near San Andreas, California on September 12, 2015. Wildfires have spread rapidly through northern California, destroying hundreds of homes, forcing thousands of people to flee and injuring four firefighters. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters watch as the flames of the Butte Fire approach a containment line near San Andreas, Calif., Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
SAN ANDREAS, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: Tall flames rise behind a firefighting inmate hand crew member at the Butte Fire are seen on September 13, 2015 near San Andreas, California. California governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in Amador and Calaveras counties where the 100-square-mile wildfire has burned scores of structures so far and is threatening 6,400 in the historic Gold Country of the Sierra Nevada foothills. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Firefighters create a firebreak near a home in Middletown, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Firefighters create a firebreak near a home in Middletown, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A wildfire burns across a hillside in Middletown, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: A firefighter with the Marin County Fire Department's Tamalpais Fire Crew ignite a backfire with a driptorch as she battles the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 near Middletown, California. The fast-moving fire has consumed 50,000 acres after it grew 40,000 acres in twelve hours and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: A firefighter with the Marin County Fire Department's Tamalpais Fire Crew ignite a backfire with a driptorch as he battles the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 near Middletown, California. The fast-moving fire has consumed 50,000 acres after it grew 40,000 acres in twelve hours and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter douses flames from a backfire during the Valley fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION

One weeping woman embraced her mother where their family home once stood, surrounded by blacked appliances, metal furniture and ash. Beige homes trimmed in white stood untouched nearby.

"I'm in shock. I want to cry. I'm looking at my neighbors' places, and they're all gone, and I'm still here," homeowner Jim Maurer said. "We're just shaking our heads."

Over the weekend, the blaze killed an elderly, disabled area resident who was trapped in her home.

The fire and another in the Gold Rush country of the Sierra Nevada foothills, about 120 miles to the southeast, were the worst of a dozen burning in the state. Between them, they have destroyed 535 homes and hundreds of other structures and displaced 23,000 people, Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, told reporters.

Citing dry conditions from four years of drought, Ghilarducci called this summer's fires some of the most volatile he's seen in 30 years of emergency response work.

The fire that marauded through Middletown and other parts of rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco, was burning nearly unchecked, despite the efforts of fire crews.

Since starting Saturday, it has consumed more than 95 square miles, fueled by parched brush and trees, and injured four firefighters. An unknown number of residents were unaccounted for. Some of them might be safe, and emergency personnel and law enforcement planned to go to their last known locations once any dangers subsided.

While the destruction of Middletown was not complete, it was widespread.

The town's two-stoplight commercial strip was largely spared. Hardester's Market & Hardware was open Monday - Grant Hardester, one of the owners, was running the lights on a generator and taking IOUs to regulars who had not evacuated.

"Just to be able to buy something has lifted people's spirits and solved some problems," Hardester while a customer loaded two shopping carts with gasoline cans, ice, paper plates and water.

It was on the streets behind Middletown's shops and cafes where the capricious devastation unfolded.

On their rampage, flames destroyed some homes but left others standing. In many cases, firefighters made the difference. Sometimes it was simply the whims of the wind.

One two-story apartment complex of about 50 units was gutted, blackened cars with melted tires sitting near washers and driers and the skeletons of metal chairs. Yet a colorful play structure was untouched, and two lots away stood eight homes, behind a white picket fence.

"There was kind of a randomness of it because the wind was so erratic," Cal Fire Chief Dave Shew said as he stood in the apartment complex's ashes. "Some good firefighting activity saved structures; there just weren't enough people to save all of them."

About 15 miles to the northwest, the town of Cobb - population 1,700 - was badly damaged.

Adam Bailey returned home to survey the damage. He hoped to search for a relative's engagement ring, but the ash was still too hot. He lost his beloved Ford pickup, the first thing he ever took a loan out on, but his family was safe - and for that he was thankful.

Elsewhere in the area, landmarks were damaged or destroyed.

The fire devastated Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing optional retreat in the mountains between Middletown and Cobb. The area also is home to a string of geothermal power sites known as The Geysers, which use underground steam to generate electricity. Five of the 14 plants were affected, including power lines and wooden towers which held cooling water, said Brett Kerr, spokesman for Calpine Corp. which runs the facilities.

Though the flames also spread south into northern Napa County, the region's famous wine valley was not threatened. Standing in the way were peaks as high as 4,300 feet.

California has seen about 6,000 wildfires this year - about 1,500 more than this time last year.

Lake County has been particularly hard hit. In late July, a wildfire east of Clear Lake destroyed 43 homes as it spread across 109 square miles. It was that fire which saw Middletown's high school serve as an evacuation shelter.

As firefighters drew close to surrounding the blaze, another fire erupted Aug. 9 several miles from the community of Lower Lake.

Jim Walsh was at the Napa County Fairgrounds on Monday morning sitting around a card table with other evacuees. It was the third time this summer he had to flee Lower lake.

This time he left with clothing, camping gear, his dog and his drones.

"My house, I hope, is standing," he said.

East of Fresno, California's largest wildfire marched away from the Sierra Nevada's Giant Sequoia trees, some of which are 3,000 years old, fire spokesman Dave Schmitt said. The fire, which was sparked by lightning July 31, has charred 211 square miles and was nearly 40 percent contained.

---

Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. Contributing to this report were Haven Daley in Middletown, Elaine Thompson in Cobb, Don Thompson in Sacramento, Kristin J. Bender and Paul Elias in San Francisco, and John Antczak in Los Angeles.

Read Full Story

From Our Partners