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.
Fundraising Pancake Breakfast
When: Sunday, March 25, 8-11:30 p.m.
Where: Wilmar Volunteer Firehouse, 3825 Bodega Avenue, Petaluma
Cost: $10 adults, $5 children