CLEARLAKE OAKS, Calif. – About 800 of the thousands of people who had to evacuate from a huge and fierce Northern California wildfire have been allowed to return, but for some the relief quickly turned to grief when they found only remnants of the places they fled a few days earlier.
Layna Rivas said she "couldn't think, I could only feel," when she came upon the remains of the artists compound where she lived.
"All of it is gone. It's so surreal," Rivas said through tears Thursday. "It looked like a bomb went off everywhere."
On Saturday, Rivas, 35, had left the compound up a rocky dirt road in Lake County 100 miles north of San Francisco only to return to find the place and its seven structures burned. Crisp remnants remained of the kitchen, sleeping quarters, artists' studio and hen coop. Melted aluminum hardened into silver snakes on the ashy ground.
She had taken her cats and dogs to a friend's house, but had to leave her eight chickens behind. She found just one of them walking through the rubble.
"She was nameless. Now her name is Rocky," said Rivas, dubbing the bird for the blaze that officials call the Rocky Fire.
Forty-three homes have been destroyed and some 12,000 people remained under evacuation orders or warnings as the wildfire chewed through nearly 109 square miles of dry brush.
But firefighters had the blaze nearly half contained, and about 800 evacuees were allowed to return home on Thursday. More neighborhoods would be reopened to residents on Friday morning, officials said.
There were fears, however, that a thunderstorm late Thursday or early Friday could bring dangerous dry lightning to the fire area or start new blazes elsewhere.
Brian Foster, who had to evacuate his house for the second time in three years on Sunday night along with his partner, his mother and his pets, was among those who expected to return on Friday.
"Today we went out there and got visual confirmation that the house was still there," Foster said.
It was a huge relief after a week that was "absolutely terrifying" after they were forced to flee in a hurry, grabbing only essentials and medication and having to leave behind one of their many cats because the animal panicked and hid.
"It's just been hell," Foster said.
The flames mowed down some dwellings and left others untouched near Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake fully within California. Some houses a mile apart were completely burned, while nearby buildings and trees weren't touched by the flames.
Rivas said the seeming randomness was difficult to handle.
"What's it all mean?" she said. "It rages one side and rages here and takes away your home and not another home and it's hard, it's hard to decipher all that." She said you just "have to keep going with the grace of God."
The fire is the largest of 23 fires statewide and has the attention of nearly a third of the 10,000 firefighters dispatched to blazes in drought-stricken California.
Wildfires throughout the West have fed off dry conditions in Washington state, Montana, Arizona and elsewhere.
California Gov. Jerry Brown visited fire crews and said the state is hotter and drier than it's ever been, making blazes more severe and extending fire season.
"This is the beginning of the fire season, and it's acting like it's the end," Brown said.
Associated Press writers Kristin Bender in San Francisco and Yara Bishara in Phoenix contributed to this report.