The Valley fire had spoiled Eric Lopez’s marriage proposal, but the story took an astonishing turn Saturday as he and his partner, Annette Perez, returned to their demolished Middletown apartment, armed with a shovel and rake to search the ashen remains of their worldy possessions.
Lopez, 20, spotted it right away: The small box holding an engagement ring he had surreptitiously saved for more than a year to buy, then hidden about two weeks ago on the metal stand behind their television.
It was right where he had left it. The ring a tad scorched; the box warped by the heat of the conflagration that spectacularly destroyed the Middletown Manor apartment complex on Sept. 12, the day the killer fire erupted on nearby Cobb Mountain.
“It’s a miracle,” said Perez, 21.
“When I told her it was still there she started crying,” Lopez said.
The couple’s joy — obviously tempered by their otherwise complete loss, including the birth record footprint of their 10-month-old son, Eric Jr. — came as Middletown was reopened to residents on Saturday, marking a turning point in the battle against the 74,500-acre wildfire.
Mandatory evacuation orders for two small communities — Aetna Springs and James Creek in Napa County — were also lifted Saturday, and the Hidden Valley Lake, Jersusalem Grade, Grange Road and Butts Canyon Road areas were set for reopening to residents at noon today, Cal Fire said.
Cobb, Loch Lomond and Anderson Springs and the area along Highway 175 down to the outskirts of Middletown remain closed, along with other small areas within the fire’s 116-square-mile footprint, said Paul Lowenthal, a Santa Rosa assistant fire marshal and Cal Fire spokesman. The majority of people covered by evacuation orders have now been allowed to go back to their property, he said, but couldn’t give a specific number.
A firefighting force of 4,275 continued to build lines around the fire that has scored about 75,000 acres and killed at least three people. Firefighters had achieved 50 percent containment by Saturday night, Cal Fire said.
The day’s bad news was the tally that 888 homes have been destroyed, a huge jump up from the 585 homes Cal Fire had been reporting for several days. The increase was due to reports coming in from teams that are assessing damage throughout the fire zone, and not more homes being burned Saturday, Lowenthal said.
That work is ongoing and the official tally of homes lost could increase, he said.
The fire, however, is no longer spreading but continues to smolder and burn primarily in isolated pockets, Lowenthal said. Much of the firefighting effort is around Cobb and Loch Lomond, where steep, rugged terrain makes it harder to build containment lines, Lowenthal said.
There were stories of loss and good luck as Middletown returned to a semblance of normalcy Saturday, with the downtown largely untouched but adjoining neighborhoods pockmarked by blackened lots next to sound structures.
Julie Alioto confessed to a bit of “survivor’s guilt,” she said, since her apartment was unscathed, just a block away from the demolished Middletown Manor complex. In November, Alioto and her son, Nick, moved from the ill-fated apartments.
“It was a relief,” Julie Alioto said. “Now this community is going to be even more tight. I’m going to be here to help it rebuild.”