Almost two years later, the Valley Fire forces Lake County to transform
You may know Lake County for the nude retreat center Harbin Hot Springs. Maybe you know it for its marijuana farmland. Or maybe your first association with the place is just fire.
Two summers ago, Lake County was struck by the third most destructive wildfire in California history.
That fire is forcing Lake County to transform. Around 2,000 buildings burned, and now the area is getting a taste of the housing scarcity that many in the Bay Area know well. In the long run, some residents see the rebuild as an opportunity to improve the standard of living in Lake County. Others worry the transformation will leave them out.
From the mountain-top roads the vistas of green forests open up into long stretches of bald, stubbly black hillside where the fire cleared its path. The brand-new homes stick out among the wreckage, trailers and temporary shelters. One of the county’s Supervisors, Rob Brown, wants to build something better than what was lost.
Brown seems like he hasn’t taken a day off work since the fire. He worked around the clock without sleep for the first seven days — tracking down pets, coordinating transportation to schools, building shelters. He says he feels like his whole life was leading up to the fire.
Brown is a bail bondsman; he tracks down people hiding in Lake County who’ve skipped bail. In other words, he knows every nook and cranny of the area. He’s worked construction and has been a supervisor for 16 years. He’s a tri-athelete and a self-described adrenaline junky.
“It felt like I was finally able to pull all of that together from my whole life,” he says.
But the longer-term recovery has been harder to pull off with sheer adrenaline. He gets a lot of complaints about the slow pace of construction. Though an estimated 3,600 people lost their homes to the fire, only a few hundred permits to rebuild have been issued. That means, 20 months later, a lot of people are still living in temporary shelters, staying with family, or they’re gone.
Brown says the county can’t clear projects much faster “without getting a bunch of unscrupulous, out-of-county contractors that leave us with a mess,” he says. A mess, rather than a revitalized Lake County for the long-run.
But for people who are still living in temporary housing arrangements it’s hard to take the long view. Janet Gill still hasn’t begun to rebuild the home she lost.
She often visits her property with her dog. All that remains of her home is a stone deck stranded on it’s own, fitted around a phantom house. She has a view for miles and plenty of space for her dog to tromp around.
Janet used to have two dogs, but she had to leave the other behind the day of the fire because she couldn’t lift him into her car. Her cat also died of a heart attack in the parking lot during evacuation.
“We were waiting for hours in the car,” she says, “I still feel bad for letting it happen.”
Janet feels like the waiting process that began that night never ended.
Once residents get through the permitting process, they’re competing with neighbors to find contractors and builders whose prices have surged due to high demand.
The third major hurdle is haggling with insurance companies. People here talk about the insurance process like it’s purgatory. Imagine something like one endless customer service phone call— only the operators are standing between you and being able to settle into a new life after everything you owned burned — and it goes on for two years.
The combination of things has left Janet spinning her wheels—ready to sell the property she loves because she needs to move into a home before insurance expires.
At the Twin Pines Casino in Middletown Jeremy Siri tells me even people that didn’t lose their homes feel the impact of the loss.
“[The fire] really broke up our ring of friends,” he says. And his place of work burned down too. He was able to join an employment program and made $12,000 working on fire clean-up efforts.
However that was only a short-term gig, and Jeremy’s still looking for full-time work. He’s spent a lot of time at the casino since the fire.
“It’ll take your money,” he laughs. “But I just enjoy gambling.”
I’m told about people who left Lake County not just because the hassle or the money was too much, but because the place reminds them of loss. That leaves people like Cecillia Nelson who lives on Cobb mountain, to feel like they’re some of the only ones keeping memories alive.
Nelson had the bad luck of moving her kids into her parents house just a few weeks before the fire burned it down, destroying everything.
“The kids pictures and videos hurt the most,” she says. “It’s all only in my head now. I can’t ever reshow them.”
Nelson received $10,000 in FEMA money, but after buying all new possessions, it’s not helping with rent—which has jumped up after the fire.
“Your income has to be double just to apply to something like what I'm in,” she says.
Nelson works at a dermatology office and since the fire she’s been cleaning houses on the side. She says the whole county is feeling the rent hikes, not just the areas that burned. The rumor is that property owners think renters can afford higher prices because they have insurance money. But, for a lot of people—like Nelson’s parents—insurance ran out months ago.
Fortunately, Nelson won’t have to rent for long. She’s getting a home through Habitat for Humanity. It’s a sweat equity program—meaning, if she puts in 200 hours building others’ homes, she gets one, too.
Nelson says the sweat equity thing comes naturally to the area. “They’ll all pull together and make sure that everyone has the money to keep going,” she says.
Many of those who were underinsured or renting when they lost their homes have had to depend on the community or charities in order to stay in the area. Some people in Lake County say there hasn’t been nearly enough to help to meet the need. People like the members of the recovery and revitalization group called Valley Fire Phoenix Rising.
Over homemade blueberry kombucha, a few of the group’s members describe their vision to create a self-sustaining eco-village full of affordable tiny homes.
“The thing about Lake County is the fact that it is the last remaining wild west that we have,” says member Fairlight Ahlgren.
“It’s the only place in California where trailer trash can have a lake view,” adds Trina Johnson.
Lake County is probably not as unique as they’re describing it, but it does have one of the highest poverty rates in the state. The Phoenix Rising group wants the rebuild to include the whole county—from the rancher’s children, to the church-goers to the new-age denizens of Harbin Hot Springs.
They don’t have a lot of political clout on their side, however. Supervisor Rob Brown says he’s not interested in experimenting with tiny homes. He wants to make what he thinks is a more lasting investment in Lake County: solid infrastructure, brand new nice houses, people moving here to support the businesses and schools that might not survive the population losses from the fire.
“Even people from San Francisco, for example, who never knew where Lake County was prior to the Valley Fire,” says Brown, “now they see and hear different stories and realize that here’s this hidden gem that’s only two hours away.”
Brown predicts that the long-term effect of the fire devastation will be, counterintuitively, that the county becomes a more affluent place.
“I think that’s what’s going to end up happening—that you got a place that people will desire to come to,” he says.
His priorities don’t always square with the Phoenix Rising group’s goal of making it possible for poor people to stay here and live off the land. Brown says the poor people in Lake County are not all struggling honestly to keep a place here.
“You have people who don't want to work,” he says. “You have able-bodied men in their 30s that would rather be up all night doing crank than getting a job — so, ideally, push them out, get rid of them.”
He says taking away blight and bringing in a higher quality of living for people will make that happen. Brown doesn’t want to price out poor people generally, but he doesn’t want Lake County to be a refuge for criminals and unproductive members of society. With a clean-slate he has more control over that.
Brown says the county is looking for the perfect balance—between making a comeback from the disaster, and making a comeback unaffordable for some of its victims.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote from Trina Johnson to Christine Terrill. Both are members of the group Valley Fire Phoenix Rising.