The Valley Fire in Lake County is one for the record books. While there have been larger fires in terms of size -- like the huge one now burning in Fresno County -- the Valley Fire now ranks as the third worst fire in state history, based on total structures burned. And at least four people have died.
It’s been a busy year for California firefighters. Typically, half a million acres burn in wildfires annually, but this year we’re already way past that and fire season is far from over.
This past Saturday, residents of Middletown in Lake County started going back to their homes -- or what’s left of them
TRYING TO GET BACK
I find David Ross and his family parked on the side of the road just off Highway 29, outside of Middletown. He’s trying to get farther up the highway to the home he’s lived in for 15 years. I ask Ross if his house is still there.
“I'm not sure, I'm not sure. We're just trying to get back to find out,” he replies.
The road is closed. They’re letting some residents through but the Highway Patrol won’t let Ross and his family pass.
“We were catering a wedding in St. Helena Saturday night, me and my wife. So we weren't even there.”
He left for his job that day and hasn’t been able to go back.
“My 15-year-old son, he was home alone and he said, ‘I'm not leaving without the dogs.’ He just packed up the dogs and drove down the hill.”
A SHELTER FOR EVACUEES
Up a hundred feet at the roadblock is Lieutenant Kelly Cardoza from the California Highway Patrol. She has seen the devastation.
“There’s just so many places where there were homes and now there's nothing left but a fireplace, a washer, dryer,” she says.
The Valley Fire, which started in the afternoon on September 12th, has burned over 75,000 acres. Part of Cardoza’s job is to direct evacuees to services, like at the Calistoga Fairgrounds, 15 miles south of Middletown, which have been converted by the Red Cross into a shelter for residents who have been displaced.
Driving into Calistoga, which is 15 miles south of Middletown, things actually look pretty normal. There’s no sign of the fire at all. That is, until I get into the fairgrounds. This is one of the spots for people who can’t go home -- either because their home isn’t safe to go back to, or because it’s gone. There are cots to sleep on, meals, medical care, showers, toys for kids, and places to set up tents.
Bill Tollman’s family doesn’t need to sleep outside. He’s standing by his trailer in the RV parking section of the fairgrounds.
“My daughter came home from soccer and was hysterically crying and said, ‘There's flames all over the place!’” Tollman recounts.
They’re from Hidden Valley, a gated community just north of Middletown.
“My wife went and got her dad who lives about a mile and a half from us. We loaded up in the trailer and we headed out of town. It was very smoky, it was very dark. It was like night time.”
Tollman has heard that his home survived the fire, but his wife’s dad lost his house. Luckily, they’ve already found a spot for him at a local retirement home for veterans. Tollman’s family has been here a long time.
“I've lived in Middletown all my life, 53 years. I think it'll be very emotional going through town and seeing the devastation.”
RIGHT DOWN THE LINE OF THE FIRE
Evan Sandler is also a longtime resident. He worked at Harbin Hot Springs, which was a popular new age retreat center in Lake County, for 23 years.
Sandler was evacuated from his home near Harbin three times this summer, for wildfires. There are dozens of them in the county every year, most of them under ten acres. They’re a part of life here. So when the Valley Fire started, Sandler never thought it would be so destructive. But after he was evacuated from his home, he realized the severity of this fire.
“It was so fast it's beyond imagination. I'm going, ‘Wait a minute, that's in the wrong place! What's the Cobb fire doing way over here?’” Sandler says.
He wanted to get some things out of his workshop at Harbin before the entire area was off-limits. So he convinced his friend at the roadblock to let him in, to grab his computer, his guitar and some paperwork. He thinks he was likely the last person out of Harbin before it burned down. As he raced away, he was driving right down the line of the fire.
“The whole left side of the road was like one gigantic flame at the ridge in different points. I got to ride the wave of a firestorm,” Sandler says.
Other area residents didn’t evacuate by car: one man I talked with said he ran the ten miles from Hidden Valley all the way to Clearlake. It took him three hours.
SOME THINGS WILL NEVER COME BACK
By afternoon the evacuee camp is scorching. You can hear the sound of generators and truck motors everywhere. The temperature is well into the 90’s, and there are announcement on megaphones telling people to give their pets water.
I find Jim Westridge walking his two little dogs, Ruby and Peanut.
He has his motorhome to stay in, but he’s facing a lot of loss.
“I live in Middletown, and my house is all gone. I lost my wife about five months ago. So it's a whole new life,” he says.
They’d been married for 51 years. He points to the dogs.
“They're a little dismayed. They couldn't figure out losing their mama and now they're going to lose their house. But we'll make it, we'll make it.”
He was able to get just a few things from his house before he left.
“I got pictures of my wife who died. Four pictures of her. Extra pair of Levi’s, extra shirt, three pairs of underwear and three pairs of socks. That's what I own right now.”
Westridge’s plan is to rebuild his house.
“I got all the grandkids coming up. I got carpenters and plumbers and mechanics, so they'll do it all. So I'm one of the lucky ones, really.”
Every evacuee I talked with said that Lake County would rebuild, and it will. But for Westridge, as for many other residents, there are some things that will never come back.
“My wife was a writer. All her life she kept journals, wrote poetry, a lot of it published. It's all gone. I don't have a single poem of hers, and there's hundred and hundreds of them that are gone. And they're gone! And her journals, they're all gone. So. That's what hurts. That hurts.”
If you want to donate money those affected by the fire Redwood Credit Union is one of the organizations accepting donations. Click here to donate.