Bob Cummensky peered over a devastated section of Middletown, California, where home after home was gobbled up by the Valley Fire.
“It’s such a beautiful area and it’s changed forever,” he told CNN affiliate KOVR, pointing to the scorched landscape.
Nearly 600 homes have gone up in flames since the blaze roared to life over the weekend. Another 9,000 are threatened, according to Cal Fire.
Now at 67,000 acres, fire crews are gaining ground, but slowly. Containment is at 15 percent.
One person has died in the Valley Fire: a 72-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis who couldn’t get out of her house, fire officials said.
More deaths possible
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Doug Pittman said authorities were bracing for the prospect of finding additional victims as damage-assessment teams comb through the hard-hit communities of Middletown, Cobb, Hidden Valley Lake and the Harbin Hot Springs resort.
“Is there the possibility that we’ll run into more people who didn’t get out in time? Absolutely,” Pittman told Reuters.
Four firefighters were hospitalized with burns they suffered in the early hours of the blaze. More than 2,300 personnel were on the fire lines as of Tuesday, Cal Fire said.
‘I didn’t expect to see everything gone’
Tammy Moore was at work when the Valley Fire tore through Cobb, California, leveling the home she’s owned for 15 years.
“(It is) so much worse than I thought it would be,” Moore said. “Even though I expected it to be bad, I didn’t expect to see everything gone.”
Many others in Northern California had similar horror stories.
Official: ‘We don’t see an end in fire season’
Mark Ghilarducci, California’s emergency services director, said roughly 13,000 people have been displaced by the Valley Fire.
Another 11,000 or so in Amador and Calaveras counties have been ordered to evacuate because of the Butte Fire, which had scorched more than 71,000 acres and destroyed 166 homes. It’s about a third contained.
Even smaller fires, like the Lumpkin Fire in Butte County, triggered evacuation orders.
Even if and when all these wildfires are subdued that doesn’t mean the worst is over. While “fire season” used to be a confined period, now it’s essentially year-round thanks in part to a historic drought that has left plenty of dry fodder for flames to spread.
“We don’t see an end in fire season for … months to come,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, CalFire’s director. “We’re in this for the long haul.”
The 585 homes known to have been destroyed represents the greatest property loss from a single wildfire among the scores of conflagrations that have ravaged the drought-stricken U.S. West so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
‘A new beginning’
Back in Middletown, Craig Eve faced the carcass of his old home. It’s really not even the bones of the old place, just a blackened chimney.
“It’s a new beginning even though I’ve lost everything, and that’s the way you have to do it. You have to have a positive attitude,” he told affiliate KGO. “With that attitude I can’t wait to clear my house and start building again.”