CLEARLAKE OAKS, Calif. (AP) -- About 800 of the thousands who fled a fierce Northern California wildfire were allowed to return home, but for some, the relief quickly turned to grief when they found only remnants of the places they left.

The charred remains of a property is shown near Clearlake, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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."

Rivas, 35, on Saturday left the compound up a rocky dirt road about 100 miles north of San Francisco, then returned days later to find its seven buildings 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 dogs and cats 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. It is the largest of 23 fires statewide and has drawn 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 Thursday, saying 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.

Firefighters had the Northern California blaze nearly half contained, and more neighborhoods were expected to reopen Friday, officials said.

Brian Foster, who evacuated his house for the second time in three years on Sunday night, along with his partner, mother and pets, was among those who expected to come back Friday.

"Today we went out there and got visual confirmation that the house was still there," Foster said Thursday.

It was a huge relief after a week that was "absolutely terrifying," he said. They were forced to flee in a hurry, grabbing only essentials and medication and having to leave behind one of their many cats because it panicked and hid.

"It's just been hell," Foster said.

The flames mowed down some houses and left others untouched near Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake fully within California. Some homes a mile apart were completely burned, while nearby buildings and trees weren't touched by fire.

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."


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