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The fire came suddenly, giving people around Vacaville little time to gather what they could and run

In the middle of the night, the screaming woke them, warning they didn't have much time....

Posted: Aug 21, 2020 10:05 AM

In the middle of the night, the screaming woke them, warning they didn't have much time. The fire was coming.

Residents in and around Vacaville, in Northern California, grabbed their treasures and got out.

In some cases, it was an album of cherished photos. One woman collected her late father's ashes and her jewelry box. Some snatched up their pets. Others took nothing and fled as fast as they could.

Then, once away and safe, came the agonizing wait for news about their homes, threatened this week by the LNU Lightning Complex fires, which by early Friday had torched 215,000 acres. Across the state, 360 recent fires -- most sparked by lightning and spread due to high temperatures, inaccessible terrain and limited resources -- have destroyed or damaged 660 structures.

A woman named Laura, who didn't want to give her last name, said she learned Thursday from neighbors around Vacaville that her home was safe. But her nerves were still rattled from having to evacuate at 2:30 in the morning.

"Our next-door neighbor pounded on the door. It was the scariest thing ever, " she told CNN as she waited at the Ulatis Community Center in Vacaville. "You don't know what to grab. I got a little jewelry box and my Dad's ashes."

Not everyone knew of the fate of their homes. They bided their time in the parking lot despite the heat.

Cheryl Jarvis didn't know whether she still had a house.

Jarvis didn't want to go inside the shelter and potentially put herself or her daughter at risk for contracting the coronavirus, she said. Besides, the parking lot had become something of a staging area for motor homes. Children rode bikes and neighbors made breakfast burritos on a portable grill.

In the center, there were just too many people, Jarvis said, so they slept in the back of her Toyota Prius.

"Not only are we dealing with Covid but with also the heat and now the fires," she said. "Where's the light at the end of the tunnel?"

'They just had to watch it burn'

Marci and Ken Albers lost their house in Vacaville.

"(Firefighters) couldn't do anything, they just had to watch it burn," Marci said Wednesday. "They had no trucks to take out there."

The Albers evacuated around 2:30 a.m. with only what they were wearing. It would have been hard to find anything else, Marci Albers said, because the power was out.

"The fire was coming our way," Ken Albers said. "There was nothing I could do."

The fire chief, who was helping direct the traffic out of their neighborhood, told them there were no trucks to battle this blaze because they were all being used to fight a fire in Lake Berryessa, the Albers said.

They first went to a friend's house but had to evacuate from there, too, the couple said. They'd thought their house would make it, Marci Albers said.

"I'm in shock. I can't even think straight," she said, while holding one of the family dogs. "We had 30 years of stuff in that house."

After registering at the shelter, the Albers planned to stay at a hotel for one night, then maybe with a friend. As for the long term, Ken Albers didn't know what they were going to do, he said.

'I can't go back in right now'

Some people weren't able to gather up their pets before they fled.

Shawnee Whaley got her mother but left behind six cats, she told CNN affiliate KOVR.

"It's sad: You want to take them, but you're not prepared," she told the Sacramento-based station. "Where is the carrier, where is the food? No! Where is your mother, get your mother and let's go. And so, that is what I was concerned with."

She also didn't know what became of her house.

"It's sad; we were really worried earlier, really worried," she said.

Margaret Salvador and her husband escaped with their trailer and a collection of family photographs, she told CNN affiliate KTXL.

"The rest of the stuff is just stuff," Salvador said outside the Ulatis Community Center. "This is validation of our lives, something for the kids."

Another evacuee, Jill Simmons, and her husband came home after the overnight evacuation only to be chased from their home by fire a second time, she told KTXL.

They arrived at the shelter with their cat, but the site was only allowing service animals. So, they slept in a parking lot in their minivan.

"It's not fun, for sure. I've never had the experience before, and I don't want to," Simmons said.

The first evacuation wasn't as hurried as the second one, so she already had a few things packed when they left, she said.

"I didn't really bring a whole lot of things," she told the station. "I hope that I have enough."

Some residents watched the smoke from their neighborhood from a distance.

Mark Velligan watched a plume where his house is, he told CNN affiliate KPIX.

"I had the sprinklers going on on the roof of my house this morning when I went back in. But I can't go back in right now," he told the San Francisco station as he waited at an evacuation center at Pescadero High School.

Greg Valentine got his family out and stayed behind so he could see for himself what was going on, he told KOVR. He watched a blaze from the Paradise Valley Crest neighborhood in Fairfield.

Valentine isn't the type of person who panics, he said. But knowing his house might burn worried him.

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Gusty winds and very dry conditions will drive high fire danger across northern California on Thursday. We'll also end up much cooler on Thursday afternoon. Lighter winds, hotter temperatures, and more widespread impacts to air quality are ahead for Friday and Saturday.
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