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Redwood Valley was in a tornado of fire. Winds howled. Hillsides glowed.

Rudy Flores opened his eyes early Monday and looked out the window. He was in the midst of the cauldron. An inferno was bearing down on his Pomo Indian tribal neighborhood of about 30 homes.

He ran outside.

“You could hear it roaring,” said the 33-year-old distillery worker.

As kids and elders frantically packed into cars, and drove away with screeching tires, Flores and a handful of other young Native American men stayed behind, getting to work saving their community.

They commandeered a water truck and drove it house to house, drenching rooftops. Someone started a backhoe and carved a protective swath where the hillside sloped behind yards.

The men worked through the maelstrom without stopping. By morning, they’d saved all but three houses.

That same blaze, now known as the Redwood Valley Complex fire, has burned 34,000 acres and claimed eight lives, including a 14-year-old boy in the driveway of his home as his family tried to escape. Those deaths occurred just a mile northeast of the Pomo homes.

When grateful tribal members returned to their homes Friday, they declared Flores and the others heroes.

“If they weren’t here all of this would be gone,” said Anthony Tooley, 68, who has lived on the Redwood Valley Rancheria since it was built in the late 1980s. “It’s a miracle.”

The residents streamed back in Friday, the first day they were allowed to return, past burned-out ranches and scorched vineyards, stunned by the destruction.

The hardest-hit areas were Tomki Road and a neighborhood on Fisher Lake Drive — reduced to foundations, bare chimneys and ashes.

“It’s all gone,” said Brandi Ellison, whose home in the 10,000 block of East Road was destroyed. “Everything I own is lost.”

Deputies Friday continued searching the surrounding hills for more bodies.

“It’s a beautiful valley,” sheriff’s Sgt. Scotty Poma said as he talked to weary residents in front of a firehouse. “Everyone’s just devastated.”

The cause of the fire north of Highway 20 is under investigation but like others still burning in the North Bay, it was fanned by extreme winds. Flames spread west from Potter Valley down the hillsides, taking residents by surprise. About 8,000 people have been evacuated and at least 245 homes were destroyed.

Kevin Jennings, a division chief for Ukiah Valley Fire Authority, said strong gusts pushed the fire in several directions, with rough terrain making it difficult to fight.

“There was no fighting it,” Jennings said. “It was like a tornado of a fire.”

He said residents would be allowed back to their homes as the areas are deemed safe. The most serious damage was found in the north part of the valley, often along narrow mountain roads, he said.

“People are coming back, hopefully to pleasant surprises,” Jennings said. “The next roads opened won’t be so pleasant.”

Among those suffering losses was Ken Oster, who owns a small winery on 200 acres on Tomki Road. He said he evacuated, then returned, filling buckets from his pool and dumping them on structures. Two of his houses burned along with his entire shop.

He feared many more of his neighbors have died.

“It came here so fast you would not believe it,” Oster said.

Rudy Flores witnessed its fury.

He and the other men on the reservation had watched as flames raced toward them, down a steep hill. Flores went house to house, turning on spigots and sprinklers, and grabbing garden hoses to spray roofs, trees and bushes. He was helpless as a wave of wind-blown embers fell on his uncle Brian Williams’ house, destroying it. But 27 others were saved.

“We did what we could to save the res,” Flores said. “We stayed and started watering down everything, even ourselves.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-521-5250 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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