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As daylight broke through the smoke and ash Sunday in Middletown, devastation wrought by the catastrophic Valley Fire came into horrifying view.

The central business district along Highway 29 was mostly untouched, but the surrounding residential neighborhoods for blocks in each direction were destroyed.

The once-quaint side streets of the town of 1,300 people just north of Napa County were reduced to smoldering ruins, the charred foundations and burned-out cars a grim testament to the firestorm that raged the night before.

Dozens of homes were lost, including at least one large apartment complex on Highway 175, in view of Cal Fire station No. 60.

Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, who led a strike team from Sonoma County, said wind-whipped flames raced through the area, taking everything in their path.

“Half of Middletown is gone,” Baxman said Sunday. “It was unreal last night.”

Residents were ordered to evacuate late Saturday as the blaze advanced from the west. They joined other evacuees from Hidden Valley Lake and Cobb, fleeing south along Highway 29 to Calistoga in a procession of red tail lights.

Some stayed behind to fight the flames with garden hoses and others parked at Middletown High School or Twin Pine Casino and Resort just south of town. Many abandoned the school for the casino parking lot as strong gusts drove the fire line right up to the town’s edge.

As night fell and the fire spread uncontrolled, the sky glowed a deep orange that gave way to flames.

“This thing is breaking loose all over the place,” said Middletown resident Ron Schuldt, who worried about his Douglas Street house as he watched the blaze devour a ridgeline.

Another Middletown resident, Jim Drake, who lives in Dry Creek Annex, said he stayed behind at his house as long as he could stand it, spraying his roof and trees with a hose. He said he fled to the casino as his neighbors’ homes were catching fire.

“What breaks your heart is, I know if I was there I could stop it,” Drake said, his voice cracking with emotion.

As they waited, firefighters waged a house-to-house battle, saving some homes and businesses but losing many others.

A Suisun City crew poured water on a fully engulfed home a few blocks from downtown as power lines dangled and sparked.

The flames were fanned by strong winds up to 30 mph that whipped up an inferno.

“There are a lot of homes burning right now,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Amy Head said as she led a media tour through the hardest-hit parts of town.

But the magnitude of the destruction wasn’t clear until the next morning.

Downtown Middletown was abandoned except for exhausted firefighters stretched out on sidewalks, catching much-needed rest in yellow fire suits.

A flower shop was burned but most other businesses — including the grocery store, real estate agency and restaurants — were spared. The high school also appeared intact.

Just a few blocks off the main drag, however, residential structures were leveled, their chimneys the only parts left standing. Noxious smoke hung in the air, trees and power lines lay across roads and the town was enveloped in an eerie silence.

“We saved a lot of stuff, but the wind was just devastating,” Baxman said.

Miraculously, a few homes survived, including a garden-ringed house on Barnes Street where Shelly Leese lives. She was among the few who were able to return to assess damage.

“We were so scared,” she said, tears of joy running down her face as she walked through the yard. “That’s everything to us. I’m really sad for our neighbors.”

Timothy Calogianes’ home also emerged unscathed but his son’s Ford Ranger parked outside was ruined. Across the street, his neighbors’ homes were burned to the ground.

“I feel lucky,” he said. “But I’m also disgusted. My house is standing but my friends’ homes aren’t.”

For complete wildfire coverage go to: www.pressdemocrat.com/wildfire

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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