Heart of disaster: California wildfire evacuees return to a wasteland

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Residents of Santa Rosa can only sift through the ashes of their former homes – some of the nearly 2,000 structures levelled by a devastating inferno

The residents of Journey’s End mobile home park didn’t have much before the fire. Now they had even less.

On Tuesday, Jan Davis climbed through the charred rubble that used to be her home in Santa Rosa, California, calling for her missing cat. “Annie, Annie, Annie,” she called. Her friend, Diane Hart, thought she heard a meow, but then all went silent.

Amid heaps of broken pottery and ash, a birdcage with burnt feathers was visible.

“All my birds died,” Davis said. “They burned in their cages.”

As of Tuesday afternoon at least 15 people had died in the wildfires that swept through northern California, whipped up by heavy winds on Sunday evening. Nearly 200 others were missing, though authorities hoped the number was inflated by the lack of cellphone service due to the fire.

In a middle-class subdivision of Santa Rosa, Barbara Nichols stood on the sidewalk of Pine Meadow Drive, bracing herself. She wasn’t ready to inspect the damage. The house she had lived in for most of her life – the house where she raised her children and planted apple trees from grafts of her own parents’ trees – was gone. All that remained was a smoldering heap of rubble.

“Thirty-one years in this house,” she said through tears. “It’s where my children grew up. This is my life.”

Like all of her neighbors, Nichols fled in the early hours of Monday, as smoke filled the air and the power cut out. The wildfire, one of 17 wildfires burning across the state, that eventually raked the residential neighborhood left a landscape of utter devastation in its wake.

On Tuesday, residents of a neighborhood that one described as the kind of place where “everyone talks to each other” returned to a different world. Block after block of houses were leveled, with just a few brick chimneys, the twisted remains of ventilation systems, and scorched trees standing up amid the debris. Metal mailboxes lay on the streets, the wooden posts that once held them up in ashes.

Within the grime-covered landscape, the only hint of sparkle came from streams of melted metal trailing away from burnt-out cars.

Residents who had returned on foot to sift through the ashes expressed a sense of disorientation. All of the familiar landmarks were gone.

“I grew up here,” said Pamela Ochoa, 22, who walked the streets offering bottles of water to people who had returned. “You can’t even recognize it.”

Haley Albano, 27, picked through the remains of her parents’ house. “It was the house to be at” when she was growing up, Albano said. “There was a pool, a trampoline. Everyone would come here. Everything happened here.”

She paused. Thinking about her childhood here any more would make her cry, she said.

Albano’s parents were staying in Sacramento for now – this was the second fire they had suffered in five years – but she had walked over in sweatpants and cowboy boots to see if she could find any mementos to salvage for them. In her hand she clutched a single recipe page, singed around the edges. On the sidewalk were two tea cups and an angel figurine. “Maybe because it’s an angel it’s a good sign,” she said.

Santa Rosa firefighter Keenan Lee had been working for 55 hours straight when he and his crew took a break in a Safeway parking lot. The crew had started work on Saturday morning, and weren’t able to stop as the fire barreled into Santa Rosa proper, leveling 2,000 structures.

“We’re certainly all tired, but this is our city,” Lee said. “We certainly want to do everything we can to protect it.”

With the fires continuing to burn in the hills around the city, thousands of people crowded into emergency shelters around town. Vaughn Held, 57, sat in his wheelchair at the Santa Rosa Veterans Building, where volunteers served up tacos in the parking lot and evacuees crowded around extension cords, eager to charge their phones.

“Embers the size of quarters were falling out of the sky,” Held recalled of early Monday morning, when a knock on the door by police prompted him to get out. The police had known about his disability, and assisted him into his wheelchair and car. “It’s kind of scary. If people like myself are in that position, how are they going to get out? I’m lucky I have my own wheels.”

One such story has already emerged. Charles and Sara Rippey, 100 and 98 years old, respectively, were the fire’s first identified victims, after their son found their bodies in the debris of their Napa home on Monday.

Mike Rippey, their other son, said his father may have been heading to his mother’s room when he was overcome by the smoke and flames.

“My father certainly wouldn’t have left her,” he said.

At Journey’s End, Johannah Lonnes stood among the ruined homes and burnt out cars in sweatpants and a pinstripe shirt. “These are poor people,” she said. “Some of these people will actually die because they won’t be able to handle the process of resettling one more time.”

Though 15 mobile homes survived the blaze that swept through the park, their residents face an uncertain future. The water and power are shut off, and they don’t know if the park will ever reopen.

For Lonnes, the fire will mean the end of her life in the Bay Area. She won’t be able to afford to stay, she said, and would move with her disabled daughter, Evie Rayno, to be with other family in Richmond, Virginia.

Whether the fire will lead to widespread displacement of the poor and the working class was on several people’s minds. Rents in Santa Rosa have risen recently, said Held, thanks to pressure from the skyrocketing rental market in the rest of the Bay Area.

“If you have homeowners’s insurance, I would assume there will be rebuilding,” he said. “But if you’re a renter in an apartment complex, the housing is so tight – where do you go?

“The greed up here is incredible.”

Even as they sorted through the wreckage of their homes, some residents managed to joke and smile. Becky Young, who had only moved into her home four months before it burned, held up a burnt spice kit: “Eau de char, anyone?”

A few blocks away, Tony Manno displayed the objects he had salvaged from the house he bought in 1986 on the sidewalk: a teacup, four saucers, a porcelain unicorn, a hockey mask.

“No,” he said to an approaching visitor. “We’re not having a garage sale.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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