Former and current Tahoe residents impacted by Northern California fires
At least 31 people are dead, thousands of homes and businesses are gone and an end is nowhere in sight.
The footprint of the devastation caused by the Northern California wildfires is so large and significant that the stories of loss and close calls — much like the smoke — have drifted from fire-ravaged towns and neighborhoods to the Tahoe Basin.
“It felt like it was raining fire,” said Catie Velarde, a Santa Rosa resident who grew up in Tahoe and graduated from South Tahoe High School.
Velarde, whose maiden name is Fonken, had returned home with her husband, Oscar, from their honeymoon about 24 hours before hurriedly evacuating early Monday morning.
Smoked filled the air and embers fell like snowflakes. The home on the corner was in flames as the Velardes drove out of their neighborhood.
They returned later that day to discover that the home they had rented for the past two years was one of more than 1,000 residences in the Coffey Park neighborhood incinerated by the Tubbs Fire.
“It literally looked like a war zone,” Velarde said. “Everything is gone.”
Around the same time the Velardes fled, Kellene Sinn awoke to the smell of smoke inside her father’s house in Loma Rica — about a three-hour drive northeast of Santa Rosa.
Sinn, who had moved in with her father, Lloyd McLeod, about a year ago when his wife died, got up and saw flames in the distance, according to Kristen Stone, a Tahoe resident and Sinn’s sister.
They evacuated with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Much like the Velardes, it did not take long for Sinn and McLeod to learn they wouldn’t be returning home.
“The family home is reduced to a pile of ash,” Stone said.
The frightening ordeal both families faced has, unfortunately, been a common occurrence in the past five days.
Fires have driven an estimated 25,000 people from their homes.
A total count of 22 fires on Wednesday became 21 on Thursday when two large fires merged together, according to Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott. The flames spanned more than 300 square miles.
A Thursday morning update from fire officials estimated at least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed in the Northern California blazes, which could become the deadliest and most destructive in the state’s history.
At least 31 people have died and officials anticipate the number to rise.
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said officials were still investigating hundreds of reports of missing people and that recovery teams were starting “targeted searches” for specific residents at their last known addresses.
“We have found bodies almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones,” the sheriff said.
The utter bleakness of the situation for so many is not lost on those who escaped and their families.
“You know people who are missing and you don’t know if they’re alive,” Velarde said.
Aleassa Anzelone, Stone’s daughter and a Tahoe resident, was grateful her aunt woke up when she did. Her grandfather likely would have continued sleeping until it was too late.
“We’re just happy that we didn’t suffer any more human loss,” Anzelone said while noting the death of her grandmother a year ago. “That was really hard on everybody in the family …”
Still, those efforts to remain optimistic are tempered by anxiety and sadness.
Velarde, who is staying with her in-laws in Rohnert Park, said she has been on edge since evacuating. She can’t keep herself from following the news.
It’s unclear what will happen next, Velarde said. Finding a place to live was hard enough. Now, with entire subdivisions being eliminated, finding a place to rent will be that much more difficult.
“Honestly I don’t even know how realistic it is that we’re going to stay in Sonoma County,” she added.
Stone, like Velarde, has been following the news.
“It’s the most devastating thing that I’ve ever witnessed,” she said.
Prior to heading out to her father’s home — or at least attempting to — on Thursday, Stone kept coming back to her father, who has lost his home and all his belongings one year after losing his wife.
“He doesn’t even have a wedding photo. … It feels like everything has been erased …”
Those with ties to Tahoe who are being impacted by the current blazes go back 10 years to the Angora Fire and one of the messages from that time: Be grateful for what you have.
“It just all boils down to … your family and your loved ones,” said Stone. “And if people could just take that extra moment to hold your family members a little closer, maybe hug them a little longer, always tell them that you love them because these kinds of things happen so quickly …”
Tribune Editor Ryan Hoffman and the Associated Press contributed to this report.