Oliver Smith already was suffering a heavy heart when he arrived at his Hidden Valley Lake home of nearly 30 years Sunday to find everything flattened into an almost indistinguishable mess.
Somewhere in the rubble of the Powder Horn Road home was an urn, or what remained of it, containing the ashes of Smith’s wife. She died last month.
Considering that fact, Smith, 88, was overcome with emotion, his eyes welling with tears. He’d been planning to spread the ashes when he could gather the family.
“We didn’t get the chance,” he said.
Smith was among thousands of residents making an emotional return to the Hidden Valley Lake community east of Middletown on Sunday, a week and a day after mandatory evacuations were ordered in the face of the fast-moving Valley fire.
After traveling through a bottleneck of cars at the community’s main gate on Hartmann Road, the former evacuees fanned out, anxious to see for themselves how their homes made out.
For dozens, the day was a somber exercise searching through the rubble of their homes for any items of precious value. A child’s bronzed shoe. Wedding rings. Military medals.
There also were moments of levity. “Hey, my Xbox!” yelled a young man helping his family look through the rubble. Of course, the game console was toast.
The “repopulation,” as the lifting of the evacuation order is called, came as firefighters continued to corral the Valley fire Sunday, bringing containment of the 8-day-old blaze to 69 percent — a significant jump from the Saturday figure of 53 percent.
The fire has consumed 75,711 acres. At least three people died in the blaze and at least 1,050 structures — most of them homes — have been destroyed, with the number likely to rise.
The burned acreage was up slightly higher than the day before, but it was due to better mapping and assessment of the damage, officials said.
“It doesn’t mean the fire made runs,” said Cal Fire Capt. Richard Cordova, who said crews continue to make good progress constructing containment lines.
He said fire officials are hoping for 100 percent containment by the end of this week.
Residents of the Jerusalem Grade, Grange Road and Butts Canyon Road areas were allowed to return Sunday, along with those from Hidden Valley Lake.
Middletown residents were let back in Saturday but should boil water before drinking it, the Lake County Office of Emergency Services said.
On Monday, officials will reopen areas of North Loch Lomond, Seigler Springs and Bonanza Springs at 5 p.m.
Cobb, Loch Lomond and Anderson Springs remain closed, along with other small areas within the fire’s 116-square-mile footprint.
Officials have yet to release estimates of how many homes in Hidden Valley Lake and the adjacent Rancho subdivision were destroyed or damaged by the fire. Many residents pegged the number at about 100, based on their own observations.
Almost as shocking as the number of homes lost was the number of homes left standing. There are about 2,600 homes in Hidden Valley, which is home to about 5,500 residents.
The Valley fire broke out on Cobb Mountain the afternoon of Sept. 12 and devoured 40,000 acres in 12 hours, driven by high winds that funneled it into Middletown and on toward Hidden Valley Lake.