California fires evacuee: 'There's nothing to sift through'

By Nicole Chavez, CNN

(CNN) -- Days after escaping the flames, Janice Mathis returned to her Northern California neighborhood for a bittersweet homecoming.

Her three-bedroom, three-bath house sat in a heap of mangled metal, rocks and blackened trees. But as she wonders what next, she said she considered herself lucky to be alive.

"I'm realizing you don't put your boots on and your gloves on and go sift through stuff. There's nothing to sift through," Mathis told CNN affiliate KOVR.

"The first thing we think of is we're fortunate."

Mathis' home in Napa is one of thousands reduced to smoldering ruins since the wildfires began October 8.

With more than a dozen fires still burning, firefighters are not only battling the blazes, but painstakingly combing the rubble in incinerated neighborhoods, looking for victims.

At least 39 people have died and more than 200 people are reported missing. And those who made it out alive are returning home to a heartbreaking new reality.

In Santa Rosa, Penny Wright tearfully walked through the debris of where her home once stood. With burned cars, concrete and twisted metal scattered everywhere, it was hard to tell which one was her house.

"All your life savings and work for all the years is gone," she said. "We lived here 10 years, I never thought that Santa Rosa would have a fire like this and we would lose everything."

Ernie Chapman's home was gone, but he said his dogs saved his life by waking him up during the fire.

"I'm glad to be here. I'm glad to have my dogs. You can replace this stuff but life's most important," the Santa Rosa resident said.

The outbreak of wildfires has become one of the deadliest in the state history, according to Cal Fire.

A firefighting force of more than 10,000 has made progress in the wildfires, which have burned more than 214,000 acres and destroyed 5,700 structures throughout California.

About 100,000 people have left their homes to escape the flames.

Gov. Jerry Brown, and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, toured areas hit by fires Saturday.

"This is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest tragedy that California has ever faced," Brown said. "The devastation is just unbelievable, is a horror that no one could have imagined."

Brown announced Friday the state secured federal aid to assist residents who suffered losses and additional funding to remove debris and take emergency protective measures.

"We are not out of the woods yet, there's still fires burning. There's still danger," Brown said.

Several thousand more people were ordered Saturday to evacuate from Santa Rosa as a new wildfire threatened the area.

Mandatory evacuations were issued when winds picked up and the new blaze erupted along state Highway 12 between two other wildfires that have been burning for days.

A large part of Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 people roughly 50 miles northwest of San Francisco, was evacuated earlier when wildfires began.

Before and after images show devastation of California wildfires

The more than a dozen wildfires have burned for days, but authorities said they had a "handle on the fire" and firefighters were making progress.

The 50,000-plus acre Atlas fire in Napa and Solano counties was 48% contained Saturday night -- up from 3% two days earlier.

The 47,000-plus acre Nuns fire in Sonoma County was 15% contained.The 35,000-acre Tubbs fire in Napa and Sonoma counties was 50% under control. The 35,000-acre Redwood and Potter fires in Mendocino County were 30% contained.

All through Northern California, residents are starting to return home after the fires wiped out entire neighborhoods. Michaella Flores was in Las Vegas at the Route 91 Harvest Festival when a gunman opened fire on the crowd, killing 58 and wounding hundreds. She returned to Santa Rosa unharmed but days later, the fires destroyed home.

The former firefighter and paramedic has seen her fair share of emergency situations. But she says the past couple of weeks have made her start seeing things from a different perspective.

"It's just a very helpless feeling," she said. "I just thought, well, I've been in these situations before. It shouldn't be a big deal."

"But when it's happening to you, it's a whole different realm."

Flores said she still hasn't fully come to terms with what she's faced this month.

"I don't sleep. I haven't had any time to process any of this," she said.


™ & © 2017 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

Share this article: