Evac­uees fear fi­nal good­byes,

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY ELLEN KNICKMEYER THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

BOYES HOT SPRINGS, Calif. — Neigh­bors and strangers hud­dle along streets un­der siege by wild­fires. We fix our wor­ried stares on ridges en­cir­cling us, at bil­low­ing smoke and hope we don’t see the glow of flames.

In the path of one of Cal­i­for­nia’s dead­li­est blazes, talk is of wind di­rec­tion, evac­u­a­tions and good­byes.

Each time I turn the key to lock my front door, I think I might be leav­ing home for the last time. I’ve cov­ered my share of sto­ries about peo­ple flee­ing catas­tro­phes, but I’m liv­ing the life of a fire evac­uee for the first time.

“Take care, sweetie,” one woman said in my com­mu­nity on the edge of the small, ru­ral, wine-cen­tric city of Sonoma, hug­ging me through my car win­dow on one of three con­sec­u­tive nights we fled an ap­proach­ing blaze.

On that Tues­day night, flames arced like so­lar flares on the ridges above sprawl­ing old oaks and tall red­woods. The trees con­ceal the wooden for­mer cot­tages from Boyes Hot Springs’ days as a re­sort des­ti­na­tion for wealthy San Fran­cis­cans look­ing to soak away their aches in the hot springs.

Now, it’s a tin­der-dry work­ing- and mid­dle-class com­mu­nity on edge.

Another neigh­bor climbed onto his roof with a gar­den hose, train­ing wa­ter first on his house, then sur­round­ing ones. Another neigh­bor vowed to stay, en­vi­sion­ing tak­ing a stand against any loot­ers.

With the ever-present stench of smoke, dis­cus­sion that night on the street fo­cused on the di­rec­tion of the wind and ad­vanc­ing fires.

“North­east,” one man said. I didn’t un­der­stand the sub­tleties but knew winds from the north were bad.

“North­west,” a woman next to him an­grily cor­rected, glar­ing at him in dark­ness brought on by a loss of elec­tric­ity.

“North­east,” he in­sisted, and we all lapsed back into our silent sen­try of the ridgetops.

Not ev­ery­one in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia had the abil­ity to watch the fire grow when so-called Di­ablo winds whipped up the wild­fires late Sun­day. In the first hours, dry tem­pests top­pled oaks onto roads, ripped loose power lines and drove deadly em­bers ahead for miles.

Many of the more than two dozen peo­ple killed so far died in those first hours as wild­fires re­duced whole blocks of houses to an­kle­high ru­ins with lit­tle or no warn­ing.

At 3:30 a.m. Mon­day, smoke was so strong that I awoke think­ing my house was on fire. With elec­tric­ity al­ready gone, it shocked me how long it took to gather con­tact lenses, shoes and other es­sen­tials I scat­tered when I had re­turned to Cal­i­for­nia a few hours ear­lier from a cousin’s wed­ding in Ok­la­homa.

For two sleep­less days, I drove around with my dog, John, in the back­seat in case fire over­took my home while I was re­port­ing on the de­struc­tion.

The death toll climbed. The num­ber of houses de­stroyed grew into the thou­sands. And two dozen fires kept ad­vanc­ing at the whim of the winds.

My ca­nine com­pan­ion

lost hope he was on an ex­tra-long trip to the dog park and grew steadily de­pressed, slump­ing on the seat. Many oth­ers had their dogs in tow, their heads stick­ing out car win­dows as firetrucks sped past and moun­tains burned.

With my suit­case still packed from the wed­ding, I had a go-bag with me, although the knee-length dresses and heels were un­suit­able evac­uee wear.

Hun­dreds of po­lice of­fi­cers and then Na­tional Guard mem­bers poured into fire zones, help­ing evac­u­ate res­i­dents and block peo­ple from re­turn­ing to burn­ing and scorched ar­eas.

My press pass got me past road­blocks. High­ways and farm lanes were black­ened for miles on both sides. With fa­mil­iar build­ings and land­marks gone, whole stretches of road were un­rec­og­niz­able.

I came across for­mer vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers de­fend­ing their houses from re­lent­less flames that ad­vanced at first from one ridge, then another, then another. The pop­ping of propane tanks in the area punc­tu­ated con­ver­sa­tions.

Peo­ple clus­tered at bar­ri­cades that blocked them from their homes. Some pleaded with law­men to pass. Oth­ers numbly ac­cepted it.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pepe Ta­maya leads horses Sammy and Loli to safety from a deadly wild­fire in Napa, Calif. For many res­i­dents in the path of one of Cal­i­for­nia’s dead­li­est blazes, talk is of wind di­rec­tion, evac­u­a­tions and good­byes.

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