Sorrow and survival in wildfire-ravaged California

Middletown (United States) (AFP) - An air tanker cut across the sky as Paula Chaves and Eve Meland loaded a pickup truck with supplies to survive wicked wildfires yet to be vanquished.

Chaves and her neighbor stocked up at Hardester's market on the main strip of the fire-ravaged community of Middletown.

The market stayed open during a firestorm that whipped through the area, turning homes, ranches and more to ashes.

It was the fourth time in a month that Chaves had been evacuated from her home on the border of Middletown and Lower Lake because of wildfires in Northern California.

She escaped last weekend with half of her horses, then braved the fire danger to go back for more horses, a pig and chickens.

On Tuesday, she was among those who managed to get back into the area. She found her home still standing.

Her packed pickup bed held fuel for generators to power well pumps to get water for livestock and themselves.

There was also disinfectant, ice, groceries, dog food, cat food, ice and beer.

"It is everyday survival right now, and being very watchful and cautious of what could possibly sneak up on us," Chaves told AFP. "There is no sleeping."

- Little more than ash -

She and her neighbors have a pact that if anyone spots flames heading toward their property, they lay on the horns of their trucks or cars as they race to escape in order to warn others.

"It isn't the best system, but it is what we've got," Chaves said. "There is no cell phone service out there."

As grim as the situation was for Chaves, brothers Andy and Mark Snell were hit with despair elsewhere in this small town.

The brothers made their way past roadblocks to find rubble and ashes where a family home once stood. It was there that they had spent much of their lives, had children and celebrated holidays.

"Every year, we would have Christmas here," Mark Snell said, his eyes watering with tears as he scanned the debris.

- Flames slow but dangerous -

"It was the family meeting place, now we've got nothing."

Andy Snell found a knee-high ceramic Santa Claus in the ashes and set it upright in the ashed facing the street, in a small vengeance against the flames and the failure of efforts to save his mother-in-law's home.

Blackened wreckage, some of it still smoldering, lined roads leading away from Middletown's main street.

Chainsaws roared and sawdust mixed with smoke as emergency crews took down charred trees they feared could fall.

Overhead, helicopters and air tankers ferried water and flame-smothering gels to dump on flames that slowly expanded the perimeter of the wildfire.

The flames had stopped running, but were not to be trusted since wind could send them sprinting. Officials declared the blaze 15 percent contained by mid-day.

CalFire spokesman Fernando Herrera expected it to be weeks before the fire was under control, with more weeks of "mopping up" in store to stomp out embers and completely restore utilities and services for residents.

The area still is not officially open for evacuees to return.

Shifting winds could turn the wildfire into a deadly beast and drive it back toward homes that were spared the first time.

"Some people sneak in; some stayed, and some know back ways in; you can't control that," Herrera said.

"There are those who are accustomed to camping out and living like that, but there are others who need that air conditioner, need that power, need that water and it is better for them to stay out."

Those whose homes are destroyed have nothing to come back for, he added sadly, hoping they would not risk returning.

Utility crews had a military-style camp set up at a school campus, complete with tents, trailers, a command post and a mess hall. There were more than 400 workers and fleets of trucks.

Some 7,200 customers remained without power, according to Pacific Gas & Electric Company spokesman Denny Boyles.

Flames still ate at utility poles and power lines, and only a fifth of the damage had been assessed because most of the area was considered too dangerous for repair crews.

- Grateful even for grapes -

"It's going to be a challenging restoration project," Boyles said, warily eying thick plumes of smoke billowing from nearby hills.

Hardester's market used generators for electricity and remained open as the wildfire flanked the business strip, devouring homes, cars and more.

The market carries nearly everything from paint, power tools and lumber to groceries, wine and local cheeses.

"Everyone in here could tell you a horror story you wouldn't believe," said market manager Ashley Mayhew, who ran the shop through it all.

"I know a woman whose house was gone but she was elated because she found a cat.

"One lady was happy because she saved some grapes. They don't have shoes, clothes... anything but they are happy just to find a cat or some grapes."

Those who returned, whether to find homes intact or destroyed, set out in search of pets or livestock that may have managed to stay alive.

"There were horses all over Spruceville Road; cows out, dogs running free," Chaves said of the scene as she fled the area on Saturday.

"It was so sad thinking these animals have no food and water. It is like a maze out there with all the barbed wire and fire trucks. It's unbelievable."

With the onset of evening, police closed off Middletown and vigilantly cruised roads because of trouble with looters.