Sep 16, 2014 5:00 PM by NBC News/Erin McClam
Mercedes Castillo says that Weed, California, is the kind of small town where the main attraction is the one bowling alley. People know each other and get along.
It is not a big place - population 2,967, a blink along Interstate 5 on the long trip from Sacramento to the Oregon state line. So when wildfire roared through on Monday, the devastation was quick.
"Everybody who I really know, I think, lost everything," Castillo said.
More than half the people who live in Weed were forced to evacuate, and an estimated 100 homes were damaged or destroyed. The modest Holy Family Catholic Church was reduced to a pile of charred rubble, with the outlines of a cross visible on a section of wall left standing.
Crews were still assessing the damage to the rectory to determine whether it was salvageable, said Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the Diocese of Sacramento. But he said the town "pretty much took a bomb."
On Tuesday, people returned to row after row of destroyed homes and burned-out cars. They wandered a landscape of blackened wood and the pink fire retardant that had been dropped by airplanes before crews began to get control of the blaze.
In the neighborhoods, appliances made of metal were recognizable - washing machines, barbecues, hot water heaters - but not much else.
The sawmill caught fire, a symbolic blow for a town founded by a mill owner, Abner Weed, who arrived in 1897, decided that the strong winds would be favorable for drying lumber.
Some outer buildings in the mill complex were destroyed, but the main structure appeared to have survived. A pile of wood chips several stories high that had caught fire was still being hosed down in six places on Tuesday.
There were no reported deaths or injuries, but people who live in Weed said that perhaps a quarter of the town had burned. The blaze was whipped along by 40 mph wind.
"Feeling completely helpless, standing there with everyone not knowing what to do or where to go, was the scariest thing I've ever had to deal with," said Tasha Davis, who fled on Monday afternoon with a few photos and her children, an 8-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son.
She took photos for a while, she said, but "once the hillside began to ignite, I drove off." She said in an email to NBC News on Tuesday that she had heard her home was still standing, but she was driving back to Weed to check it out.
Castillo, 22, who works with the after-school program at Weed Elementary School, arrived for work just before 2 p.m. on Monday and found the children being evacuated single-file.
She began to help herd kindergartners to safety. "They were in hysterics," she said. "Most of them were trying to cover their faces. Every single one of them was crying. They just didn't know what to do."
She corrected herself - this is wildfire season in California, during a historic drought, and people know the drill for fire danger.
"Everybody knew what to do," she said. "At the same time, we were all kind of lost."
Part of the elementary school was badly burned. At least 100 homes were believed to have been damaged or destroyed, but a woman who answered the phone at the mayor's office said that the town was still struggling to get its arms around what had happened.
Along the main stretch of Weed Boulevard, the gas stations and businesses appeared to be all right, said Carrie Hadaway, who works at the Hi-Lo Café. It still had power Tuesday, and people streamed in to eat and talk about what they had lost.
"Everybody is coming in, giving people hugs," she said. "A lot of people lost their homes. We're kind of a tight community. We're pretty devastated here."
It was only after Castillo got the kindergartners to safety on Monday - they were taken first to the high school and then to another elementary school - that she was able to check on her three nieces, who are in fifth, sixth and eighth grade and were fine.
Later in the day, her boyfriend called and said he was at the house that they share. The flames were headed that way, he said, and he wanted to know what he should grab and save.
She asked him to get two changes of clothes, her computer hard drive, a photo album and as many pictures as he could take off the walls and carry. The house turned out fine, and Castillo said she considered herself lucky.
When she spoke to NBC News on Tuesday, she had just learned that the car she left behind the day before at the school was all right, too.
"Everything around it burned, to the ground, and it's still there," she said. "I don't understand it."