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Valley Fire Scorches Rural Communities North Of Napa Valley

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A few numbers suggest just how much of California has burned this year.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There have been 1,500 more fires this year than last. That's not 1,500 fires. It's 1,500 more fires.

INSKEEP: Wow. We've been tracking the worst of them, the Valley Fire, north of Napa Valley, which has now consumed about 70,000 acres. It has destroyed 600 homes.

MONTAGNE: You get a sense of what those numbers really mean when you visit Middletown, Calif. Here's Lesley McClurg from Capital Public Radio.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: Michael Thomas is on his way to help round up rattled cattle and horses. His father-in-law refused to leave his animals behind when the area was evacuated. He couldn't help but pull over and look out across the airport. The airstrip is now a desolate blackened field. He squints. He pulls his shirt up over his face.

MICHAEL THOMAS: It smells like poison, smells like a barbecue gone wrong, probably like a burning house times a thousand.

MCCLURG: The smoky haze lays thickly over rolling hills. Power lines lay strewn across the roads. Timbers are smoldering.

THOMAS: It looks like an atomic bomb went off in the area.

MCCLURG: A chimney is all that's left of Thomas's favorite Mexican restaurant. Only a few businesses are open in this town of just 1,300 people. One of them is a Chevron station. The owner is Palani Velloo. He feels lucky that the flames came close to his business but damaged nothing.

PALANI VELLOO: The fire line is almost in a straight line to our property line and took a left. Everything behind - a hundred homes - behind us were destroyed.

MCCLURG: The fire moved swiftly, torching entire subdivisions, leaving other neighborhoods untouched as it sweat through. The golf course is still green, but the houses along the fairway are burned to the ground. Lonnie Thompson was relatively lucky. His yellow farmhouse was untouched by the fire. But 50 feet away, a lone horse has wandered into smoking ashes of what used to be a barn.

LONNIE THOMPSON: The fire, when it come up by the shop, it come in a hurry. But I had everything cleared out pretty well. It hit that loose hay where the goats had been feeding. And then it just caught all that other hay on fire. And it burnt to the ground.

MCCLURG: Thompson estimates his losses at about $50,000. But his main concern now is thirsty cattle. He points to empty troughs.

THOMPSON: About bone dry.

MCCLURG: His herds have gone three days without drinking anything because both water and power for pumps are down.

THOMPSON: That's good.

MCCLURG: A crew of firefighters pulls up to fill buckets the size of kiddy pools. The cows lap up the liquid quickly. Thompson says he's taking it one step at a time.

THOMPSON: It is what it is, so we're just going to have to deal with it. Maybe I'll give up the farm and go to work on a trash truck (laughter).

LINDA GARNHART: One moment we're watching the flames and sitting there on the swing set. And 20 minutes later, we're in the car with black smoke piling over us, hoping we get out.

MCCLURG: Linda Garnhart and her four kids escaped. She thought she was one of the lucky ones. But then, the winds changed directions.

GARNHART: I just went and looked at it. I had four houses right in the middle of the block. They're all dust.

MCCLURG: Garnhart is wide-eyed. Her face is pale. Her body shakes slightly.

GARNHART: So we're leaving. And literally all the boxes with all my son's baby pictures were sitting right there. But I didn't grab them 'cause I thought we'd b back in the morning.

MCCLURG: She's trying not to think about what's next.

GARNHART: Is there going to be enough people and enough housing to even start the school again?

MCCLURG: But she hasn't lost hope.

GARNHART: You know, it's really sad. But we get a chance, you know? Like, that's what we were just talking about in the store, of, well, will we make the town better than it was?

MCCLURG: She says her future hinges on how many of her neighbors decide to stay and rebuild together. For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in Middletown, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.