Hope Amid the Ruins: Residents Who Fled Valley Fire Return to Middletown

Steve Leonardi sifts through rubble at the remains of his home in Middletown Saturday, Sept. 19.

Steve Leonardi sifts through rubble at the remains of his home in Middletown Saturday, Sept. 19. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Updated Monday, Sept. 21

By Alex Emslie
KQED

By noon Saturday, hundreds of people from Middletown, a community of 1,300 on the southwestern edge of the Valley Fire, were lined up at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga.

A week after one of the most devastating fires in California history swept through their little town, they were waiting for passes that would allow them to go home.

Most had some idea whether they’d be returning to a house that was still standing or one that had been reduced to a charred foundation and, maybe, a keepsake or two that had survived the fire.

Steve Leonardi and his wife were in the latter camp. Their pink Victorian on the corner of Wardlaw and Jackson streets had burned. They’d seen the pictures.

“We’re just trying to get up there to go through the remains and see if we can get anything out of it,” Leonardi said, driver’s license and proof of address in hand to show sheriff’s deputies distributing the passes.

A few hours later, he would pull a few antique pocket watches from the rubble of his home. They had belonged to his wife’s father.

“They’re destroyed,” he said, “but at least she has them.”

Leonardi recalled what he’d seen late last Saturday, when he returned home from visiting his brother in Petaluma to a massive firestorm barreling down Cobb Mountain toward Middletown.

“There was flames all over the place,” he said. “People were just stopping and watching, so I sort of worked around to get to our house. … The temperature was hotter than it’s ever been in Arizona. It was incredible. I’m looking up and now there’s a 30-foot flame that’s probably 25 yards away, and I’m actually looking at the flame and going, ‘Shit, it’s going to hit.’ ”

Leonardi grabbed his pets and a couple pieces of music equipment and left for Napa, where’s he’s been staying for a week. Like most of the thousands of people displaced by the fire, he’d been able to view the destruction only from afar, through pictures and news reports.

The fire didn’t touch houses on Jackson Street across from Leonardi’s home. Ginna Ratto came back to find her house intact.

“Weird,” she said about how it feels to be home. “Good but weird … The other side of the street is gone — completely gone. You see a chimney and a fence and trees down and nothing. There’s nothing there except for charred rubble.”

(Alex Emslie/KQED)

Greta Zeit, whose bed-and-breakfast/home is still standing a few miles south of Middletown, described what it felt like not knowing whether her house was destroyed.

“The feeling is overwhelming,” she said. “Luckily it was a feeling of loss that turned out not to be so for me. For my neighbors that’s not the case. So many of my neighbors, my friends lost their homes.”

She wasn’t the only person to compare the fire’s wake to something like a war zone, but she took the analogy a step further when describing how she feels about her home surviving when so many other people lost everything. Cal Fire says the 115-square-mile blaze consumed more than 1,000 homes. At least three people died in the fire.

“It’s the man in the foxhole,” she said. “Your buddy gets shot, and you’re glad that you didn’t get shot, but you feel terrible that he did. It’s a war zone, and you’re going to have the same reactions that you have in a war zone. That’s the way it is.”

Like so many others who live in the communities devastated by the Valley Fire, Zeit is first looking to help her neighbors. For starters, she plans to put three displaced families up at her bed and breakfast.

Firefighters met residents with water bottles, gloves and dust masks as they slowly trickled up Highway 29 into Middletown. They told residents about a new evacuation shelter set up at the Twin Pines Casino just south of town and offered to help in any way they could.

Cal Fire Chief David Shew stationed himself on Wardlaw Street, in a community he knows well. He’s worked the area for more than a decade, and he watched Middletown burn as he and other firefighters worked desperately to save what they could. Here’s how he described the scene last Saturday:

The roar of the winds pushing the fire through, seeing structure after structure with very little resources here to try to take care of it. There’s trees burning, there’s power poles falling. As the fire starts to subside, there’s propane tanks that are off-gassing, and it sounds like a jet engine. You hear a hundred of those throughout town. You hear propane tanks exploding. It’s the roar of the fire, it’s the sound of propane tanks, it’s the crashing of structures as they’re burning down. All of that cacophony of noise is just pretty unsettling.

“It’s hell on Earth,” Cal Fire Riverside Division firefighter Danny Cook chimed in.

Spend enough time talking to firefighters about the Valley Fire, and the Butte Fire east of Sacramento, and the Rocky and Jerusalem fires that scorched a wide swath of Lake County earlier this year, and a troubling thought bubbles to the surface: They’ve never seen Northern California wildfires behave like the big ones this season, and they might be the new normal.

“We’ve all been asking ourselves that,” Shew said. “Environmental conditions have changed over the years. Like it or, not we have longer, hotter, drier fire seasons. We’ve got more explosive conditions.”

Conditions that allowed the Valley Fire to grow by 4,000 acres an hour for its first eight to 10 hours, catching not only residents but firefighters off guard.

“We just simply didn’t have nearly enough resources here Saturday night to fight a fire this size,” Shew said. “The firefighters who were here are in that horrible position where they have to do a triage situation and try to choose which structures they can save and which ones they can’t. That’s a horrible situation for any firefighter to be in, but the reality is that’s what happened here that night.”

He added, “This really does force us to sit down and look at what the definition of normal really is.”

What's left of a basketball hoop in a Middletown driveway on Sept. 19.

What’s left of a basketball hoop in a Middletown driveway on Sept. 19. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Some of the story of Middletown and communities like it is told through signs scattered about the winding country roads and small-town streets. One on the outskirts of Middletown, in front of a burned-down house, said simply, “Thank you firefighters. We know you tried.”

“It’s been a very hard week for a lot of people,” Shew said.

But in the face of tragedy and destruction, there are glimmers of hope. Hardester’s Market survived, even though owner Grant Hardester’s home did not. He walked through town Saturday afternoon passing out $50 or $100 gift cards, redeemable at his store.

“We’ve had people call the store and want to help people immediately,” Hardester said, “so they’ve either bought gift cards and put a person’s name on it that they know needed it or they’ve asked us to please just distribute a small gift card to someone who’s in need right now — someone who’s lost their house, someone who has nothing.”

He gave one to Steve Leonardi as he prepared to leave the burned Victorian on Jackson and Wardlaw streets, heading back to Napa. Leonardi wasn’t sure he could use it, but said he’d give it to someone else who could.

Like everyone else I spoke to in Middletown, the Leonardis aren’t sure what’s next. They don’t know if they’ll try to stay in the little town or end up moving somewhere else. Like everyone else, they are sure they want to help rebuild, regardless whether they stay or not. I asked Steve Leonardi if he can find any hope in this situation.

“There’s hope in life,” he said. “This is an instant in life. This isn’t life. There’s hope in life, and you gotta keep that.”

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