'I was terrified'
Gene Toms watched in his rear-view mirror as his house of 37 years — the house he had raised his two children in — was engulfed in flames early Monday afternoon.
Toms, a retired police officer and former firefighter, was eating lunch, and his wife, Lana, was cleaning when they first spotted the fire sweeping over the hill near their home in Weed, Calif.
Within 10 minutes, everything they owned, except their three dogs, some cash and medication, the clothes on their backs and the car they drove away in, would be gone.
“It’s kind of an empty feeling when all you’ve worked for your whole life you drive away from and you realize, ‘I don’t have anything other than the clothes on my back,’ ” Toms said Wednesday. “It’s a horrible feeling.”
Among the Tomses’ losses were all their wedding photos, the Christmas presents for their children, Gene Toms’ police certifications and awards, the $2,500 in cash they had put aside for a trip to Disneyland with their grandchildren, and the home they had recently paid off.
“No matter what the insurance pays, we’ll never get back what we had,” Toms said. “But we got out safe.”
In all his years with the police and fire departments, Toms said he’d never seen a fire move that quickly.
The wildfire started near Boles Creek just east of town around 1:30 p.m. Monday and, driven by 45 mph winds, destroyed 110 structures, including two churches and the library, and damaged 90 other buildings in just a few hours.
Weed Elementary School and the Roseburg Forest Products mill, one of Siskiyou County’s largest employers, also were damaged.
More than 1,500 people, half of the city’s population, were forced to evacuate in a hurry.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported that three people were injured. However, the extent of those injuries is unknown as calls to Cal Fire Wednesday were not immediately returned.
As of Wednesday afternoon, crews had a containment line drawn fully around the 375-acre fire's perimeter, but still considered it only 25 percent contained because of the intense heat and embers that remained inside the line, Cal Fire officials said.
More than 950 firefighters were on the scene Wednesday to extinguish these hot spots. Crews also were hard at work cleaning pink fire retardant off the homes, cars and fences that had been spared.
How the fire started remains under investigation. Cal Fire is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information on the fire's origin.
Mounds of charred rubble and burned-out cars and appliances were all that remained of some neighborhoods. And downed power lines draped hazardously over empty streets.
Taylor Yoakum, 19, sifted through the ruins of her family’s home on North Davis Street next to the now former Grace Community Evangelical Presbyterian Church. She was wearing a pink shirt and jeans that had been donated, since all of her other clothes and possessions had been lost in the fire.
Yoakum said she and her parents were home when the fire came over the hill just south of them. Seconds after the Yoakums saw the black plumes of smoke, emergency personnel drove down their street ordering people to evacuate immediately.
“They were screaming, ‘Get out! Get Out!’ ” she said.
Yoakum’s family runs an animal sanctuary from their home and had just enough time to grab nine of their 30 cats and eight of their 10 dogs.
One of their dogs had been hiding under the bed and another had run off, she said.
The Mt. Shasta Animal Hospital found two of their missing cats, but both were badly burned.
Her mother, Gabby Yoakum, said the family has insurance and will rebuild in Weed.
“All this stuff is stuff, but there are some things we can’t replace, like my dad’s shadow box and my animals,” she said through tears.
Her dad’s shadow box contained naval memorabilia from his service in the Vietnam War, his medals and the flag that had been draped over his casket at his funeral.
“I don’t even own a pair of tennis shoes, or a sweatshirt or a toothbrush,” Gabby Yoakum said. “I don’t have anything, but I feel like I have everything because of this community.”
Cindy Kasper, a business development manager with Cronic Disaster Services, was standing nearby and estimated that it would take around eight months to clear rubble and build a house on the Yoakums' property.
“Those without insurance will have to get friends and volunteers to shovel their property before they can start to rebuild,” she said.
Down the street, an ember caught Bob Hodges' garage on fire. Inside were his power tools, a generator and some garage sale finds, as well as his wife’s only picture of her mother as a little girl.
When the fire started, Hodges got his wife to safety and then returned three times to get medication and his 12-foot albino Burmese python.
“That doesn’t matter,” he said, pointing to his ruined garage. “I’m alive. My wife’s alive. And we have our house.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he added.
Mary and Jim Taylor were also lucky. Jim Taylor, a docent at the Weed Historic Museum, with help from two firefighters, saved his family’s home, as well as two of the neighboring homes.
Taylor rushed home from work when the fire started and told his wife to close the windows, get their dog and cat and leave.
Taylor started the sprinklers and the neighbors' sprinklers. When sheriff’s deputies told him he had to leave, he politely told them they would have to handcuff him and put him in the back of their car if they wanted him to leave, Mary Taylor said.
Two firemen showed up and stayed with Jim Taylor until the worst was over.
“Had they not stopped, it would have all been gone,” Mary Taylor said.
Meanwhile, she watched and waited from Sons Park, a ball field in Weed.
“My God, I was terrified,” she said.
The people around her were crying and hugging as they watched their homes being destroyed. She said the sound was deafening, like hundreds of propane tanks exploding, and there was black smoke as far as she could see.
Around 4 p.m. Monday, a police officer told Taylor he would go check on her house and husband.
“I told him it was 810 Hillside Drive, blue house with white shutters,” she said. “When he came back, he said the house was fine. The relief was immense.”
Sadly, the same could not be said for most of the houses in her neighborhood.
Reach reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or email@example.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt. Reporters Sam Wheeler and Ryan Pfeil contributed to this article.