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Dead trees and blackened foundations continue to dominate sections of south Lake County’s landscape, four and a half months after the Valley fire swept through, devouring more than 76,000 acres and 1,280 homes.

But, like the first flowers of spring, new houses are beginning to rise from the scorched earth in the fire zone, signaling the recovery to come.

James Westrich, 82, a retired real estate agent, on Tuesday became the first burned-out homeowner to be issued an occupancy permit, allowing him to move into the newly completed, 1,188-square-foot manufactured home on his charred lot in Middletown.

“I’m ready to go,” he said Wednesday. On Saturday, family arrived to help him furnish his airy new digs.

Nine miles away on Cobb Mountain, the new stick-built home of Ron Haskett and Kathleen Ahart is nearly complete. They are the first to rebuild in their fire-gutted mountain neighborhood, one of the hardest-hit areas.

Their new home replaces one they purchased in May, just a few months before the Valley fire tore through the area in September.

“It’s looking so pretty,” said Ahart, checking out the freshly painted exterior of the home, a soft green color, on Wednesday.

“I’m ready to move in,” Haskett said. But there’s no water service yet and the contractor still needs to texture the walls and install doors, cabinets and flooring.

The 1,362-square-foot home, which features a vaulted, exposed-beam living room ceiling and a walk-in closet, is expected to be completed at the end of February.

They are pioneers, leading the charge to rebuild the fire-torn area.

“It’s a sign of courage and encouragement,” Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown said.

It’s particularly a leap of faith for Haskett and Ahart, who are surrounded by empty rural lots. Their nearest neighbor resides up the mountainside in a travel trailer.

The couple’s neighborhood may be short of houses, but not of people. Construction, utility and road workers are everywhere on Cobb Mountain, working to make it habitable.

Other property owners frequently stop by to check on the new home’s progress.

Some phone and say “Oh, I walked through your house,” said Haskett, 51, who works at Kelseyville Lumber.

Their construction company, Lake County Contractors, has worked in inclement weather to complete the house and launch others.

“They worked in the snow and rain. They’re amazing,” said Ahart, 45, who works at a storage facility and sells real estate.

“The weather doesn’t bother me and my crew. We want to get people back into their homes,” said the company’s superintendent, Rob Williams.

The company is working on five building permits for the area. County officials said 23 permits to rebuild permanent homes have been issued so far.

Williams said he’s never been this busy with construction work. He expects the fire-charred areas of Lake County will be humming with building activity when the weather improves in the spring.

The Anderson Springs area, however, will likely be slower than others to rebuild.

It faces particularly difficult building problems because most of the homes that burned are too close to streams and their lots too small to allow for legal setbacks and septic systems. The narrow valley is likely to require that a sewer system be installed before rebuilding can begin, county officials said.

Brown said the county is investigating funding sources for that work.

Throughout the fire area, the cleanup of scorched properties is mostly completed, a key step in the rebuilding process.

The effort by CalRecycle to clear the burnt remains of homes and trees from Lake County properties was suspended due to rain last week but has already removed debris from 1,130 sites.

Only about 30 properties signed up for the service remain to be done. When those are completed, the state agency will begin work on properties where the owners have not taken steps toward cleanup, county officials said.

Those cleanups must be completed and certified before a building permit can be issued.

Westrich was among the first group of homeowners to have their properties cleared of fire debris, allowing him to quickly move forward with placing a new home on his land.

Haskett hired a private construction crew to prepare the land for his new home so he wouldn’t have to wait.

The state Department of Insurance estimates the cost of rebuilding insured homes and businesses in Lake County will be about $700 million.

It’s an uncelebrated boon to the building industry because it arrived as the result of a devastating fire.

“That’s a lousy way to have a rebound in construction,” said Keith Woods, CEO of North Coast Builders Exchange.

He worries some overwhelmed fire victims will be vulnerable to scams and advises people to thoroughly check out contractors before hiring.

Both Westrich and Haskett said they had good homeowners insurance policies that covered most of their costs — code upgrades normally are not included — and did so right away.

They also wasted no time getting started as soon as possible. Unlike some people displaced by the fire, they knew from the beginning they wanted to rebuild.

“I love it here,” said Westrich, who moved from Sonoma County to Lake County with his wife, Delores, known as “LoLo,” 23 years ago. She died in April.

It saddens him to have lost so many mementos of his life with her.

When evacuation orders were issued Sept. 12, he left with very little, thinking his home in the middle of a town would be safe. The homes of many of his close neighbors escaped the fire, and the nearby downtown Middletown area was unscathed.

“I thought, ‘Forest fires stay in the forest; they don’t come into town,’” Westrich recalled.

Thinking he’d be back in the morning, he packed just a few items of clothing. For reasons he can’t explain, he also grabbed several framed photos of his wife from the wall as he left.

“I’ll never know (why), but thank God,” Westrich said.

He’s also thankful that he decided to take his motorhome to carry his two small dogs. Having the trailer allowed him to camp next to his property and keep the dogs with him all these months instead of leaving them in a kennel.

But he lost all of his wife’s journals and artwork to the blaze, along with a lifetime of their keepsakes.

What little remains at the property includes a meditative labyrinth she constructed of stones in the back yard.

“I walk it every day,” he said.

Westrich likes the new house, but it’s not yet a home, he said.

“It’s going to be sterile in there for a little while,” he said.

Hanging the photos of his wife will be the first step toward transforming his new residence into a home, he said.

Haskett and Ahart were away when the fire broke out and lost everything, including their antiques, guns, heirlooms, two vehicles, her military dog tags and family photos.

They’re thankful they happened to take their two dogs on their trip to a cabin near Lake Pillsbury before the fire broke out.

“We never take the dogs up there,” Ahart said. But it was hot so they didn’t want to leave them at home.

Since the fire, they’ve moved from one temporary situation to another and are now living in a trailer near her work.

Ahart and Haskett said they loved their old home, which was nestled among trees on the once densely forested mountain.

“It looked like a park. It’s all mud now,” Ahart said.

But they prefer to look at the positive side of life.

“I have an amazing view” now that there are fewer trees, she said.

Cellphone service — previously nearly non-existent — also has improved with the loss of trees.

What they like best about Cobb, however, is the community, which has grown closer since the fire.

“Everyone is so caring,” Ahart said. “It’s hard to see the trees down, but trees don’t make a community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@press democrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter

See The Press Democrat's complete Valley fire coverage at http://valleyfire.pressdemocrat.com

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