The journey up Highway 29 toward Middletown is one of those picturesque California drives that you dream about while sitting in traffic on the Bay Bridge, or pressed against a stranger on the 22-Fillmore. The road snakes along, rolling through the hills of Lake County, offering quick glimpses of sweeping vistas before the car darts back down below the tree line.
Given all the devastation several miles north, the serenity of the drive is unexpected.
But that calm breaks at the first sign of the wildfire: the smell. It’s like a distant campfire, not entirely out of place in these early fall months, but unsettling in its pervasiveness and increasing strength as you edge north.
Soon, smoke can be seen billowing from nearby mountain ridges. We pass three utility workers leaning against their truck, arms crossed, staring up at a white plume a half-mile away.
Before long, we’re clearly no longer adjacent to the fire but right in the smoldering path it left behind.
By early accounts, Middletown was entirely destroyed, so we braced ourselves for the worst as we passed into the town. But like a lot of the information that comes out early during fast-moving events, it wasn’t entirely true.
Most of the businesses along the highway are still standing. The Chevron gas station was even open for business, serving emergency personnel and residents who stayed behind.
“My house did make it. I do have employees that have lost everything they have,” said Connie Williams, a Middletown resident who runs the gas station. “You cry with them … you hug them. You just tell them, ‘Everything’s OK. You have your life. You have your family. We start over.’ ”
Down one residential street, we see the gut-wrenching impacts of the wildfire: blocks of homes, now a field of ash and twisted metal.
Most of the residents who evacuated aren’t permitted into the burn zone, and have not seen their homes. They don’t know if they should mourn their loss or rejoice that their home was spared. These residents have a singular question, whose answer will prompt many more: “Is there anything left?”
At most of the homes we saw -- no.
What survives is concrete or metal: driveways, sidewalks, front stairs, mattress springs, car frames and appliances. Nearly everything else is gone -- burned down to ash now sitting a foot deep in the foundation.
Unrecognizable in the rubble are possessions that evacuees wish they had grabbed. The fire moved so much faster than typical wildfires that residents were left with little time to think through what to take.
“You could see the fire come down Cobb [Mountain] like a river, just flowing down into Middletown,” says Maia Giovannoli, a Cobb resident. “We came with a day's worth of clothes; that’s all we could carry. And whatever we could fit in our car.”
Some prioritized the practical, like clothing, medications and phone chargers. Others went for sentimental: photo albums, heirlooms, wedding china. But often, what people fled with was an odd assortment of objects that were at hand.
"The problem was you're not really thinking clear," says Dan Nelson, who fled from Hoberg's Resort & Spa in Cobb. "I wish I would have spent a minute or two more, grabbed a few more things."
In time, residents will be allowed back into these areas to see for themselves what is left. Then come the next steps -- picking up the pieces, rebuilding and moving forward.
Scott Shafer and Alex Emslie contributed to this report.