Valley Fire victims begin sifting through ashes of homes

CALISTOGA, Calif. (KGO) -- The Valley Fire in Lake County is now listed as the third most destructive fire in California history. More than 1,200 homes have been destroyed plus hundreds of other structures. Evacuation orders have been lifted for Siegler Springs, Bonanza Springs and north Lock Lomond.

Each one of the burned out homes comes with its own set of issues. There are nails, sharp objects, household products, appliances and tons of twisted and melted metal. The effort to clean it all up is just beginning.

DONATIONS: How to help victims of the Valley Fire where you live

There is a new Lake County hotline for updated information on the fire: 1-888-565-2787 You can also call the number to find support if you need help assessing your damage.

Janet Mondragon and her son Nicholas told us they won't spend much time sifting through the ashes of their house, just a few hours, just enough time to get a few keepsakes and get out.

"My husband works at a winery. He had these huge, big large size bottles of wine under our bed, going to save them for my daughter's Quinceaera. Gone. It melted the bottles, there's just flat green glass," Mondragon said.

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An excavator in the area is a just a preview of the massive cleanup effort that lies ahead at the Valley Fire. Hundreds of properties have been devastated by fire and a lot of the debris that is left contains toxins.

"The first phase is coming on and looking just for obvious household wastes and other types of hazardous that need to be removed, kind of like a hazardous materials response," Karen Tait from the Lake County Department of Public Health said.

That's why returning residents have been instructed to do as little sifting through their rubble as possible, and if they do, they need to make sure they wear gloves and masks.

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Once residents have gotten what they can, the California Office of Emergency Services, working with Lake County, will come in and remove what's left and scrape the lots to several inches below the surface.

"The goal of the program is to have the ground safe enough for a 3-year-old to play in the dirt," Tait said.

Workers from Pleasanton's Two Men and a Truck moving company brought in supplies for fire victims.

"I just can't imagine anything like this happening to me, so I try to do what I can, by helping them, loading it, dropping it off, doing whatever I can and if this what I can do, then I'm going to do it," Denzel Hutchins from Two Men and a Truck said.

With the Valley Fire mostly contained, the Cal Fire crews are starting to pull out and those that remain will change their focus from firefighting to restoration. They will try to minimize, fix and repair the environmental damage they and the fire left behind.

Not everybody has been able to return to the burned areas. About 300 people remain at the evacuee shelter set up at the Napa County Fairgrounds in calistoga. That number is down from some 900 people a few days ago.

Families who live in Middletown and Hidden Valley have left, but those who live at Cobb Mountain remain, living in tents and RVs.

"We just spent days crying together, bonding together, helping each other out with children, helping each other out with animals. And the one blessing in all of this is that it brought us closer and it brought us stronger," evacuee Star Bartell said.

The shelter at the fairgrounds will remain open until Thursday. Of course, not everyone who has left has a home to return to. Some have moved to other shelters closer to their properties.

Because many people have lost driver's licenses and other important documents in the fire, the DMV is offering help to those victims. They've opened an assistance center in Middletown that will be open from 7 a.m. - 7 p.m. all this week.

Click here for full coverage on the Valley Fire.

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PHOTOS: ABC7 News reporters at the Valley Fire
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