MIDDLETOWN — A real estate agent waits to rebuild her home on the same lot she fled in September, mourning the animals she couldn’t save and the family heirlooms she left behind as one of the most devastating wildfires to hit California wiped out her rural subdivision.
Another evacuee survived the deadly wildfire with just a singed house, but now faces eviction. And a self-described hermit who is grieving the breeding parrots he lost, beats back despair as he surveys the blackened land around his ranch.
“I moved here because it was the most beautiful place I had ever encountered in my life. I said this is it,” said Lawrence Ross. “And now it’s one of the ugliest places I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Five months after the Valley Fire killed four and wiped out 1,300 homes in Lake County, many residents face personal and logistical hurdles that put full recovery years away, if ever, for some.
The Sept. 12 fire torched nearly 120 square miles and caused at least $700 million in insured damages, making it the fifth costliest wildfire in state and U.S. history in terms of insured losses.
The county of 64,000 people is renowned for its remote beauty, privacy and an outdoor recreation industry centered on Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake entirely within California. Today, skeletal pines and charred tree stumps litter a portion of it.
There’s also the threat of flooding and mudslides as forecasters warn of El Nino storms that could quickly saturate fire-scarred land unable to absorb heavy rain.
In woodsy Anderson Springs, a former resort with a bubbling creek where only about 20 of 200 homes survived, green metal address markers are staked where houses once stood.
“A lot of the people are on the fence about rebuilding and a lot of it has to do with the sheer devastation of it all,” said Jessyca Lytle, after a particularly contentious recovery task force meeting last month. “There’s an immense amount of fatigue right now.”
Lake County officials are trying to get their arms around a recovery complicated by terrain ranging from tidy lots in downtown Middletown to off-the-grid homes along rutted roads that themselves need repair.
They’re not even sure how many people lack permanent housing, given that some of the destroyed buildings were second homes, but peg the number at 3,000 displaced.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has registered more than 2,600 households in Lake County requesting help and approved more than $6.7 million for housing assistance and other needs.
FEMA has also reimbursed the state more than $43 million to help clear debris from private property.
Lake County Supervisor Jim Comstock knows people who are unsure about whether to stay. He recounted the story of a couple who initially decided not to return, but then changed their mind.
“We’re really excited,” he said. “They’re good people and we want them here.”
The county is among the poorest in the state, with pockets of wealth. Its residents are retirees, commuters, families that have lived there for generations and newcomers grateful for the peace they say they found before the fire.
Back in September, Sabrina Jose was thrilled to find her rental home of nearly seven years largely intact, even as neighboring houses perished. She was determined to stay in the town where her oldest daughter is a high school senior and where her youngest, who has Down syndrome, is a beloved fifth-grade cheerleader in the youth football league.
Then Jose received a notice from her landlord to move and months later, she’s stressed over finding a place to live in a county strapped for affordable rentals.
“I feel like we survived the fire, but we can’t survive the landlord,” she said.
Despite frustration and sorrow, signs of hope can be found.
It’s in the bright green grass growing on acres of once-scorched land and the yellow hay scattered on burned lots to prevent erosion. It’s in math teacher Bill Davis’s joyful voice as he reports on life since he waited anxiously in a school gymnasium in September to see the ruins of his former house.
Davis scraped together enough money to buy a mobile home near Lower Lake High School, where he teaches. His sister even found his lost cat, Tootsie, weeks after the fire started.
“My students were the motivation,” Davis said.
Also at that school gym last September was Nell Boyer, a San Francisco Bay Area transplant and avid animal lover who had learned that morning that there was little left of her house.
Boyer eventually decided to rebuild on the same spot, even though it hurts to think about the white magnolia tree that used to grace one side of the house and the family recipes she lost.
“This is where I feel I belong,” Boyer said. “I just feel whole here.”