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.