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Middletown residents will be allowed back into their community at noon today, a week after the wind-driven Valley fire raged through the Lake County town of about 1,500 residents, Cal Fire officials said Friday night.

“It is a huge step,” said Paul Lowenthal, a Santa Rosa assistant fire marshal and Cal Fire spokesman. “People can get back to their properties to start the recovery process.”

The wildfire, which has covered 73,700 acres, killed three people and destroyed at least 585 homes, was 45 percent contained Friday night with no significant movement during the day.

Residents will be able to reach Middletown off Highway 29 from the south, Lowenthal said, noting the highway will remain closed both north and south of Hidden Valley Lake, which remains under a widespread mandatory evacuation order.

Law enforcement checkpoints will be in place to limit access to residents of Middletown proper, not the larger area which includes smaller communities along Highway 175, including Cobb, Loch Lomond and Seigler Springs that are still closed and remain hazardous with downed trees, power poles and smoldering debris, Lowenthal said.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done outside of Middletown,” he said.

The homecoming will be difficult for residents who will see their demolished homes for the first time. “It will be an emotional time for a lot of people,” he said.

More than 900 people displaced by the blaze were at the evacuation center at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga Friday night, Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said.

About 200 people will be allowed into a new shelter in the events center at Twin Pine Casino on Saturday, said Carol Huchingson, Lake County social services director.

The communities of Twin Lakes and Rancho Sendero, both just south of Lower Lake, were opened to residents Friday night, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said.

More than 4,200 firefighters were working the fire Friday, and Lowenthal said they were bracing for the return of hot, dry weather this weekend. The National Weather Service said temperatures would peak in the 90s and lower 100s Sunday afternoon, potentially breaking longstanding records around the Bay Area, including the North Bay.

Meanwhile, rescue teams with cadaver dogs continued Friday to search for six more people reported missing in connection with the blaze. The search areas included Middletown, Cobb and Hidden Valley, Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said. The search also includes places where the missing people may have gone, he said.

Firefighting activity was focused in the southeast portion of the burn zone, near Aetna Springs, as well as a significant area from The Geysers all the way through Cobb, Loch Lomond and Seigler Springs.

“The rains were good on some parts of the fire but on the flip side, it limited our ability to get into fire containment lines,” he said, adding that making significant headway on containment lines is a priority for firefighters.

At a Friday afternoon news briefing in Lakeport, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mike Smith said he understood residents were anxious to get back to their property. But he said hot spots within the fire perimeter must be suppressed enough to allow residents to safely return.

Damage inspection teams are examining every property in what Smith called a “daunting process.” The findings have not been made public.

A community meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. today in the Lower Lake High School gymnasium. Representatives from Cal Fire and other agencies will discuss fire operations and answer questions.

Law enforcement in the area remained focused on preventing looting at intact but evacuated homes.

Three men from San Francisco and Brisbane were arrested Thursday on suspicion of looting after they were spotted in a Toyota pickup by a Lake County sheriff’s deputy patrolling the Hidden Valley Lake area shortly before 3 a.m., officials said Friday.

A deputy found that one of the men, David Michael Cesari, 23, of San Francisco was armed with a loaded .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol. Inside their vehicle, sheriff’s officials found a full face mask, three pairs of gloves, tools, duct tape, zip ties, numerous keys, acetone, headlamps, flashlights, binoculars, empty plastic bags, empty garbage bags, a backpack and large knives.

Also on Thursday, a deputy stopped a 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee in Loch Lomond about 9:05 p.m. and found the driver’s side of the vehicle had been painted black and white to resemble a law enforcement vehicle. An investigation determined the Jeep had been stolen from a home that had been burglarized in the 10000 block of Seigler Canyon Road in Lower Lake, in an evacuated area, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said Friday.

A box of ammunition, a TV, a DVD player and other items were found in the Jeep. The driver, Jeremiah Patrick McGinnis, 25, of Cobb was arrested on suspicion of theft and unlawful driving of a vehicle, burglary during a state of emergency, first degree burglary, entering a closed disaster area and possession of burglary tools. He was booked into the Lake County Jail on $300,000 bail.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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

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