Valley fire evacuees depart Napa County Fairgrounds for uncertain future
CALISTOGA — People displaced by the massive Valley fire folded their tents and loaded their vehicles on Tuesday, departing from their impromptu home here at the Napa County Fairgrounds, with some going back to houses still standing and others facing only rubble and an uncertain future after the destructive wildfire.
The evacuees had put their lives on hold here for up to 10 days since the Valley fire ignited and swept over a huge swath of southern Lake County, burning more than 1,200 homes and killing at least three people.
They slept in tents, RVs and a fairgrounds building and came together three times a day over meals. They cared for the pets and livestock saved from the fire and generally had come to regard one another as neighbors.
But their most commonly shared sentiment was a desire to return to Lake County, which has been scarred by the 76,000-acre blaze, wiping whole neighborhood blocks off the map while sparing others. Some evacuees had homes waiting for them, but many others said their next stop was a shelter that opened Saturday at Twin Pine Casino and Hotel outside fire-ravaged Middletown, where officials were scrambling to accommodate the returnees.
'We're trying to keep people as close to their communities as possible,' said Supervisor Rob Brown, whose district includes devastated neighborhoods on Cobb Mountain, where the wildfire erupted in the early afternoon of Sept. 12.
By late that night, the wind-driven blaze had swelled to 25,000 acres, prompting mandatory evacuations of an area home to more than 8,000 people. For many, the only escape route was south on Highway 29 into Napa County, where an evacuation center took shape at the fairgrounds and by the end of last week held more than 900 people.
The population began dwindling over the weekend as Middletown, with 1,300 residents; Hidden Valley Lake, with about 5,500 residents; and numerous smaller communities reopened, triggering a process county officials are calling 'repopulation.' The Calistoga fairgrounds shelter will close Thursday morning.
The departures continued Tuesday as President Barack Obama declared a major disaster covering the fire area in Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties. The declaration triggers the release of federal money for recovery and cleanup, including grant money for temporary housing and home repairs.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said the funding will help with recovery and rebuilding as part of a local, state and federal effort to 'ensure Lake County comes back stronger than ever and thrives.'
Residents affected by the fire may register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov, via smartphone at m.fema.gov or by calling 800-621-3362.
By Tuesday, there were only a few dozen tents at the fairgrounds, and Napa County officials said the evacuation center would close after breakfast Thursday, with each family receiving a bag of food.
Some evacuees loaded boxes of their only belongings — mostly new donated clothes, blankets and other necessities — into cars and pickups. Others had left their tents to go north and make plans before packing up.
'It's pretty thinned out,' said Kristi Jourdan, a Napa County spokeswoman, after walking the fairgrounds Tuesday morning. 'People said, 'We're rolling out.' '
Alejandra Lopez, 17, of Middletown said her parents had left in the family's pickup to take a first load up to Middletown, where they planned to stay at the casino owned by the Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians.
Beyond that, Lopez said she didn't know what her parents planned to do. 'We haven't really talked about it,' she said.
She and her family were at her little brother's football game in Fort Bragg while the fire destroyed their apartment on Barnes Street. They stayed in Fort Bragg that night and then headed to Calistoga.
Across the field, David Uribe, 33, said he was overwhelmed by all the details of relocating and not knowing if his Whispering Pines home was still standing. Yet he said he couldn't wait to get back to Lake County.
'I need to start writing things down. I'm losing track of everything,' Uribe said.
Rochelle Gross, 47, who lost the home she and her husband, Bill, rented in Cobb, said she was ready to let go of all she had lost — the possessions, the beloved cat who perished in the fire — and start looking ahead.
She forged fast friendships with people camping around her at the fairgrounds, calling them 'my neighbors.'
The couple was headed for the Twin Pine Casino with the donated clothes, shoes and blankets they received at the fairgrounds. Having moved to Lake County from Southern California three years ago, they forged a deep connection with the area and are determined to stay, Gross said.
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