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.
The community appeared to be dead in the sights of the blaze as it roared east from Cobb Mountain and through Middletown.
Backed by strong winds, the flames skirted Putah Creek after crossing Highway 29, then shot down Hartmann Road, according to fire officials. Crews, including one from the South Lake Fire Protection District stationed at Hidden Valley, prepared for the coming inferno by soaking the area with water.
“It was pretty much hell on earth, and these guys were watching it come,” said Danny Cook, a Cal Fire public information officer. “They stood their ground because that’s their job.”
It’s unclear to what degree the firefighting efforts may have helped from steering flames away from the community’s heart. The fire traveled along Hartmann and down Meadow Mountain Road, before hooking around the community’s eastern flank and spreading along the ridge near the back nine holes of the community’s golf course. The fire crossed into the adjacent Rancho subdivision, appearing to level most, if not all, of the homes there.
While the blaze spared the vast majority of homes in the two communities, in some areas flames appeared to almost maliciously target some homes while leaving adjacent structures untouched.
Mike Herdell was one of the last homeowners to evacuate the community and witnessed the worst of the inferno. After sending his wife off in one of the couple’s cars, Herdell stayed behind to try and defend the couple’s Indian Rock Road home.
With propane tanks exploding around him and flames advancing along the mountaintop, Herdell used water from garden hoses to douse spot fires started by shooting embers. Herdell said by the time a fire official ordered him to leave the neighborhood at 10:30 p.m., he believed his home would be spared.
“I thought we were golden,” he said. “I really didn’t think this would happen.”
But Sunday afternoon, Herdell studied what used to be his home, now reduced almost completely to rubble.
“I’m heartbroken, obviously,” Herdell said.
Several homes on Donkey Hill Road also were destroyed. But across the street, a home belonging to David and Rosemary Ruiz was spared, save for a 4-foot hole burned into their deck. The hillside below the home was charred.
“I don’t know how God spared our home,” Rosemary Ruiz said.
Keriann Terry, a labor and delivery nurse at Kaiser Hospital in Santa Rosa, said she had only enough time to grab two family portraits and an urn containing her mother’s ashes before rushing out of her family’s Rock Ridge home. She and her husband, Josh, fled the community with four children.
On Sunday, the family picked through the remains of their home.
“I’ve cried so much at this point,” Keriann Terry said. “We’ve got to dust ourselves off and do what we have to do.”
The digging was interrupted Sunday by a joyous reunion with the family’s cat, Citree, which had been missing since the fire. A man presented the cat to Keriann after the animal showed up unexpectedly at the house next door.
Terry vowed the family, which had fire insurance for the home, would rebuild on the site.
“It’s a great community,” she said.
For Oliver Smith, who is staying with his daughter in Pleasant Hill, the future is an unknown.
“It’s just a matter of scratching and seeing what comes up,” he said.
For complete wildfire coverage go to: www.pressdemocrat.com/wildfire.
Staff writer Clark Mason contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.