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Without Warning, Northern California Fire Kills 5, Displaces Others

SCOTT SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

There's been some progress battling the massive fires in Northern California after the blazes destroyed homes and killed five people. Some of the displaced people who've fled the Valley Fire, an hour north of Sacramento, have been cleared to return home today. They may not have much to return to. Many who fled that fire this week took shelter in Calistoga, in Napa Valley nearby. And the town has opened its arms. The local fairgrounds are now a tent city, run by the Red Cross, where people have gathered with their horses, chickens and cats, which they can't always do in hotels, even if they could find rooms.

Yesterday, we spoke to a few of the people who got out about what they lost and what their plans are. First, Annie Simon - she and her boyfriend, Craig, lost their house, clothes, possessions and barn. They still have their animals.

ANNIE SIMON: We have four goats here, two pigs here, four dogs - two of them very large.

SCOTT SIMON: She fled with her children, grandchildren and Craig to the house of a friend named Audra.

ANNIE SIMON: They're just in grass, and they've survived this kind of thing before so they stayed, but I'm just, like, we have grandkids and we have to get out of here. So we left and finally ended up in Calistoga, because we didn't know where we were going. We had no idea.

SCOTT SIMON: Mark Snell also lives in Lake County and says he saw the fire coming.

MARK SNELL: I was about 30 minutes north of Middletown. I seen a puff of smoke arise. Came home, loaded up my five chickens, five cats and three dogs. Started grabbing some pictures and what artifacts we could out of the house.

SCOTT SIMON: He drove by a state fire facility on his way out of town and asked for guidance and says he didn't get much of an answer.

SNELL: There was no evacuation. There was nobody to tell us nothing. There was no warning on the phone. It was just - I knew it was bad and we had to go. And we left behind all my kids' stuff, all our Christmas stuff that the kids had made, and, you know, you can't get that back - doesn't come back. I lost my mother's suitcase. She died when I was 12, and that's all I had to show my kids. And it's gone.

SCOTT SIMON: Mark Snell says the lack of support he feels he received from Lake County authorities may make him reluctant to return there.

SNELL: I was talking to the wife about that. We don't know if we want to rebuild - if we can trust Lake County to respond to our needs, to protect us, to do anything. I really don't know if I want to rebuild there or not. I'm seriously thinking of moving.

SCOTT SIMON: His neighbor Susan Bennett said that she was completely burned out of her home.

SUSAN BENNETT: It was my grandmother's house, and I moved into my grandmother's house probably about 35, 36, 37 - I don't even know what day it is - years ago. So I lost everything.

SCOTT SIMON: Do you know where you'll spend Saturday night?

BENNETT: If they keep us here, I'll be here. If not, I'll pitch a tent on my ashes. (Laughter) I don't know. I have no idea.

SCOTT SIMON: Annie Simon says that she knows she can't salvage the home and possessions that have burned and she has to start over.

ANNIE SIMON: Where do you really want to put the barn and what kind of a house do you really want? That's what you do, I guess.

SCOTT SIMON: Well, this is a major turn in your life, isn't it?

ANNIE SIMON: Yeah, who wants to start over at 60, right (laughter)?

SCOTT SIMON: Later in the day, we spoke with Clive Richardson who runs the Calistoga Roastery in town. He's bringing out sandwiches and coffee to strangers in the cool, fall weather, who have quickly become friends. They've lost everything, he told us. We can give them a little something. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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