California town struggles to recover from devastating fire

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Paul Duncan said he took all the proper precautions. Pointing to burned area of land near where his house once stood, he said, "This was all green. We'd done our clearances."

So when Duncan saw smoke in the distance, he left his wife Courtney and daughters Paige and Rose and raced toward the flames, CBS News' Carter Evans reports. The so-called Valley Fire was 25 miles from his home when it suddenly exploded -- a wall of flames bearing down on Middletown.

Just six minutes after the order came to evacuate, Paige said, "the houses down the road were already on fire."

Rose said, "I texted my dad. I was like, 'I'm so scared. Where do we go?'"

"And she said, 'There's cars in front of me that are on fire. There's fire beside me. There's fire behind me,'" Paul Duncan said.

Rose was surrounded by fire. "I texted him that I loved him, and he said, 'I love you too,' just in case anything would have happened."

"And I said, 'You know where the road is, you need to drive," Paul Duncan said. "'Step on the gas, and drive through the fire.'"

Though Duncan's family was spared, four people died in the Valley Fire. But Duncan said fire crews helped save thousands by evacuating entire neighborhoods.

Justin Galvan was also facing flames when he heard Middletown was being overrun.

He was out on the fire lines, his home was on fire, and there was no one to protect it.

"What's the alternative?" Galvin said. "You know, bring a bunch of resources over here, save my house and then have people perish down the street? You know, that's not an option."

Eight firefighters lost their homes.

So did 100 students at Middletown High School. Principal Bill Roderick's house burned down. His wife Shaun is a teacher. Their daughter Taelor is a Middletown High freshman.

"This was my house for most of my childhood," Taelor said.

The Rodericks were out of town when the fire broke out. They frantically called a neighbor, hoping to rescue what mattered most.

Shaun Roderick made the call to the neighbors. She said her neighbor told her, "'Shaun, I promise you I will not leave. The fire is in my backyard, but I'm not gonna go without Tinkerbell.'"

The promise was kept. The dog was saved.

Shaun Roderick said, "She's the caretaker of our little family, all four pounds."

"This," Bill Roderick said as he looked around his yard, "it's memories. And it hurts. Don't get me wrong. It hurts. But, you know, we're all OK."

A large part of the community is starting over. Just two weeks after the fire, classes resumed at Middletown High.

Talking about going back to school, Rose who is a sophomore at Middletown High said, "It was emotional. At least two-thirds of my friends have lost their homes, but going to school was definitely helping me cope through this, knowing that our teachers are going through the same things, students are going through the same things."

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The charred remains of Harbin Hot Springs Resort are seen after the Valley Fire whipped through Middleton, California September 14, 2015.
REUTERS/Noah Berger

Not every student felt that comfort.

Paige said, "I'm pretty much the only one out my friend group that lost their house ... They kept messaging me like, 'Oh my house is there, my house is fine,' and all this stuff, and I was like, 'Yay, congratulations' ... I don't have clothes to go out to the grocery store to get food. All I have is my pajamas. And they're like, 'Oh, I don't have Wi-Fi.'"

It is a dilemma for a community that welcomes any sign of normalcy but where so much remains to be done and so many still need aid.

Rose said, "I don't like getting stuff from other people. I don't like charity."

"It feels very natural for us and our children to be on the helping side," said Courtney, Paige and Rose's mother. "Being on the other side is very unusual, very uncomfortable, but it ultimately will help us get back to where we can help other people again."

For now, the Duncans are digging through the rubble, finding small treasures.

"It's emotional. It's something survived when very little did. Most of it was ceramics. But it does provide just a little piece of your past back," Duncan said.

Mostly, though, it's all about looking forward.

"The hills are gonna get green again," Courtney said. "People are gonna rebuild, and it will be better than it was before. It will be. How could it not be?"

Even with damage on such a wide scale, the recovery has begun, and so has the resiliency.