ANDERSON SPRINGS - Bell-shaped flowers and thin blades of grass have begun emerging from the scorched soil in this steep, narrow canyon in southwest Lake County, signaling renewal in a place that suffered some of the most devastating damage from the Valley fire.
But people won’t be returning so quickly to their homes along a rushing creek in the mile-long canyon, where only 19 of some 200 homes survived the blaze as it roared through. Two of the four people who died in the 76,067-acre Valley fire last fall lived in Anderson Springs, a tiny community that grew up from the remains of a 19th century hot springs resort.
Elsewhere in the fire zone, most people are able to rebuild as soon as their lots are cleared of debris and toxic waste and the weather allows for construction. A Middletown man moved into his new home last weekend, and a Cobb couple expects to follow at the end of this month.
But Anderson Springs has a hurdle that most other areas don’t, at least not on the same scale. About 115 of the destroyed homes have septic tank systems that are located too close to the creek. The county may be able to grant variances of some degree for small lot sizes and proximity to the creek, which would include many former homes that were not up to code. But county officials say they have little flexibility on septic system rules meant to protect the environment and the health and safety of water consumers.
“We cannot turn a blind eye” to the septic issue, said Supervisor Jim Comstock, whose district includes Anderson Springs.
Most of the homes don’t comply with current regulations because they were built decades ago, under more lenient rules. Many were built as vacation homes and cabins, never intended for year-round residency. Only about 30 percent of the homes that existed before the fire were full-time residences, said Bruce Summers, whose home of 30 years was destroyed by the fire.
Most of the lots and homes along the creek are so small there’s no way to install a new septic system that meets the state code, which requires such systems be at least 100 feet from a stream.
For Summers , complying with the setbacks would mean installing new septic systems on their neighbors’ properties, highly unlikely scenarios.
“Those of us on the creek are not going to be able to rebuild without a sewer system,” said Summers, a retired PG&E employee.
Local, state and federal officials are trying to do just that. The plan is to build a $7.5 million system that pipes the canyon’s wastewater to the sewer plant in Middletown, about two miles from the entrance of Anderson Springs, Comstock said.
“The new Anderson Springs wastewater collection system is a key part of the recovery,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture already has committed $2 million to the project. County and state legislators, water officials and representatives from the governor’s office will discuss the proposed sewer system early next month, McGuire said. He and Assemblyman Bill Dodd, D-Napa, also have hosted several meetings in Lake County to review the issue, McGuire said.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here