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CLEARLAKE OAKS -- The view from Roger Hue de LaRoque's deck looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film.

The ground around his Clearlake Oaks home is charred and covered with pale ash, the trees are black sticks and smoke is rising from rocks and debris.

"It's a war zone," said de LaRoque, who sells infused balsamic vinegar and homemade jams at farmers markets.

He was returning Sunday afternoon from the San Rafael market when he spotted smoke coming from the hills northeast of Clearlake.

The fire began shortly before 4 p.m. Sunday near Highways 20 and 53, creating a billowing column of smoke that towered into the sky, visible in southern Sonoma County more than 50 miles away.

Firefighters saved de LaRoque's house overlooking Highway 20 just east of Clearlake Oaks, but about everything else on his 30-acre parcel was destroyed. His fruit trees and most of a 5-acre vineyard are ruined. His solar energy system is a melted mass of metal, glass and plastic.

A car, tractor, horse trailer and hilltop cabin also were destroyed.

De LaRoque said it took 10 years to grow his trees and vineyards.

"Now it's gone. It's overwhelming. I don't recognize my place," he said.

His modest house might have perished, too, had he not bulldozed the brush around it to clear an area firefighters call "defensible space."

A neighbor on the other side of the highway, Patsy Thorburn, was not as lucky, he said. Two others, like de LaRoque, lost vehicles and structures but still have their homes.

Despite the setback, de LaRoque is optimistic he can re-create what he had.

"I just take it one day at a time," he said.

To the northeast, longtime Spring Valley resident Rita Torre and her neighbors were ordered to flee Sunday evening when the wildfire threatened their rural subdivision of more than 400 homes. The subdivision was spared, but thick smoke clogged the air and oak trees exploded into flames along their escape route.

"It was terrible. The trees were blistering, like huge, huge torches. All the trees looked like humongous torches," she recalled Monday from an evacuation site set up at the Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge just west of where the fire started.

Torre said she saw at least three homes burned along Long Valley Road, one of the main roads into the rural subdivision off Highway 20.

The heat from the flames was so intense that it could be felt by passengers inside fleeing cars, said 16-year-old Shelby England of Clearlake, who had been visiting Spring Valley for a birthday party.

"They took us right through the fire," said the Lower Lake High School junior. "It was very scary. We were driving through all these flames and houses burning down."

The evacuation began Sunday evening. Spring Valley residents initially were told to meet at a nearby rock quarry but were sent to an area store when the fire got close.

Soon after that, they were told they had to get out of the valley.

Evacuees were escorted out to Highway 20 in groups of about 10 cars.

They were given little time to gather personal items.

"I just grabbed all my kids' pictures . . . important mortgage papers . . . my mother's crucifixion cross on the wall. I took that with me. I prayed to the Virgin Mary, hoping she'd protect the house," Torre said.

"The first thing I grabbed was the dog. Then I grabbed my grandma's ashes, a little bit of clothes and whiskey," said Clinton Gray, 32.

"There was fire all over the roads coming out," Gray said. "It was crazy."

The evacuation site at the Moose Lodge quickly overflowed Sunday night with displaced residents -- many of whom slept on the ground in the parking lot.

Other Spring Valley residents never left and some evacuees made their way through roadblocks to return to their homes on the premise they were checking on pets. The single store in Spring Valley was doing a brisk business Monday, despite the evacuation order, which was lifted Monday evening.

Many who had followed the orders to leave remained Monday at the Moose Lodge, where food and water was available, thanks to the Red Cross and donations from businesses and private individuals.

"The community has been outstanding," said Pam Rowland, senior regent for the women of the Moose Lodge.

You can reach Staff Writers Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or Glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com and and Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann @pressdemocrat.com.