MIDDLETOWN — Jerome Strach witnessed pandemonium Saturday as residents evacuated from Cobb ahead of the wind-whipped flames racing across southern Lake County. They were headed toward his mother’s home and Strach had little time to fetch her and flee to safety.
“It was a mad scramble,” Strach said. People were screaming at one another, loading dogs into cars and many were towing horse trailers.
Highway 175 was the escape route for countless residents ordered out of their homes as the fire roared from the Boggs Mountain area toward Middletown on Highway 29.
Drivers were talking on their mobile phones, looking out their windows and making their way to safety, Strach said.
The Lakeport man fetched his mother, Betty, 72, from her Loch Lomond home, north of Cobb, and as the sun set over Clearlake, they watched a massive plume of smoke fill twilight sky.
Whether her home and hundreds of others escaped flames from the Valley fire was unknown late Saturday.
Many of the refugees remained in Middletown, despite orders to evacuate that area, as well.
They gathered in the parking lot at Middletown High School and along downtown streets, cars packed with belongings.
Some clapped as fire engines drove by.
Ryan Ferris, 28, who rents a house near Middletown, said the winds were like a tornado. “All of a sudden it broke loose,” he said, fearing he might have become homeless.
“There goes everything,” Ferris said, tears falling from his eyes. “As it is now, we barely get by.”
Jennifer Hartnett was at work at her restaurant while her son Alex, 15, was home alone at Hidden Valley Lake, a gated community on Highway 29 between Middletown and Lower Lake. She was making plans for his evacuation when the phone line went dead. She had arranged for a friend to pick him up.
“The last thing I said to him was, ‘Grab the dogs and run down the street for a white pickup truck coming to get you.’ ” At 7 p.m. she was still unsure where her son was.
Cyntha Lorenz of Pine Summit, near the top of Cobb Mountain, fled with her taro cards, a drum and a dog named Puppy.
“I’m praying my house is okay,” she said, parked just outside Middletown.
At Middletown High, there were recreational vehicles, boats and cars in the parking lot. Some school offices, an auto shop and a barn on campus had burned late Saturday as the fire encroached on Middletown.
Claude Myers, 61, of Anderson Springs, said he just had time to grab a small safe, a little bit of cash, a sleeping bag and his cat before leaving his home of 25 years.
“I’ve got a lot to lose there. I don’t know where else to go or what to do,” he said, with flames visible in the hills.
Retiree Steve Resendez, his wife and adult son, stood in shock, gazing up at the blackened hillside where, Resendez was sure, his home had been destroyed.
He said he was napping when smoke woke him up and he realized a fire was bearing down on the house near Black Rock Golf Course.
“I just grabbed my dog and left,” he said. “I was in a straight panic. Scariest thing I ever saw.”