In the shade of a weeping willow on the banks of Cache Creek on their Lake County property, Carolyn and Bud Shipley sit at a wooden table, considering their future.
A year ago today, the couple lost their home, belongings and businesses in the Clayton fire, which ripped through historic Lower Lake and surrounding areas. It scorched nearly 4,000 acres and incinerated 300 structures, including 188 homes and 10 commercial buildings.
Scores of people remain displaced. Damage and cleanup costs are expected to exceed $26 million. And Damin Anthony Pashilk, 41, the Clearlake handyman and suspected serial arsonist in the Clayton fire, remains in the Lake County jail on $5 million bond pending a preliminary hearing Nov. 1. He’s alleged to have set 16 fires and to have attempted to light a 17th in 2015 and 2016.
The Shipleys’ willow tree is one of the few reminders of their once lushly landscaped 7-acre property with paths, a koi pond, party deck, outdoor kitchen and pool. It was the site of many gatherings, including their daughter’s wedding attended by some 200 people.
“It was really nice. Really nice. We had a huge forest and it’s all gone,” said Carolyn Shipley, 67, looking out toward an empty field, where deer were grazing on new vegetation.
A year after the fire, many flame-gutted properties remain empty, in part because shellshocked residents in the town of some 1,300 people are, like the Shipleys, undecided about their next step. When the Clayton fire erupted, the county was struggling to recover from the 2015 fire season, one of the most disastrous in its history. Three major fires — the Jerusalem, Rocky and Valley — burned 275 square miles of southern Lake County. The Valley fire was the worst, claiming at least four lives and nearly 1,300 homes.
Since the Clayton fire, only 40 permits for dwellings have been issued and 13 new homes, mostly modular, have been cleared for occupancy in the affected area, according to Mireya Turner, Lake County Community Development Department associate planner. “For sale” signs dot the landscape.
In the Shipleys’ case, their home was insured. But their historic downtown building that housed their real estate, antiques and sports memorabilia businesses was not. The loss initially pushed the couple to consider moving to Mexico or Panama, where their retirement dollars would go further.
Yet the Shipleys decided against it. When Bud Shipley, 77, became ill, they realized they needed to be closer to family, friends and hospitals. Both also had recently suffered bouts with serious ailments before the fire struck.
“Our friends we’ve had here in Lake County, they’re just wonderful and they’ve all just rallied around us,” said Carolyn Shipley, a native South African. “They started fundraisers. Allowed us to sleep on their couches. Took our dogs in. We never felt alone through all of this.”
They made their decision to rebuild in February but have yet to obtain a permit to begin construction. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, there are signs of rebirth with new modular homes cropping up.
Some permits are being held up by a shortage of inspectors. In the last month, or so, the county has lost three of its four building inspectors, said Supervisor Rob Brown. It is in the process of interviewing new candidates.
“It’s a great concern of the board,” he said.
Brown also would like to periodically hire contract inspectors to keep up with demand during building spikes, which are imminent. By the end of the month, Hammers for Hope, a nonprofit organization Brown helped found to disburse $4.2 million in CalHome grants and loans, expects to choose recipients from among Valley and Clayton fire victims who were underinsured or uninsured.
The money primarily will pay for materials, while Hope City, a nationwide nonprofit organization, will provide volunteers to do most of the construction. Together, the groups expect to build 72 homes within the Clayton and Valley fire zones.
Lake County Habitat for Humanity received another $2.3 million in CalHome grants. Its officials have said they expect to construct about 30 homes.
Construction in the Clayton fire area has picked up in the past two months, said Zach Correia, 27, who, with fiancée Megan Du Vall, moved into a new modular home three months ago.
“There’s a lot of activity,” he said, noting that the sounds of tractors wake him early in the morning.
Correia, who works for PG&E and sells real estate on weekends, and Du Vall, an office manager, were among the first to rebuild. They never doubted they would return.
“We knew right away. We contacted the insurance company right away,” Correia said.
They had insurance to replace their home, albeit a smaller one, but many others didn’t. Du Vall’s mother was uninsured and is still living in a trailer on the adjacent property. She’s hoping to be among those receiving housing assistance.
Construction also is picking up in the Valley fire area, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who was instrumental in obtaining funding for rebuilding and other assistance. To date, 362 dwelling permits have been issued and 125 of those have been completed in the Valley fire zone, county officials reported.
“The county is busy. The sound of construction … is ringing in the valleys and the hilltops,” McGuire said.
Rebuilding will further increase once a new sewer system is completed in Anderson Springs, where replacement of more than 100 fire-damaged homes has been stalled because their septic systems were too close to a stream. Construction for the state and federally funded $11 million system is expected to break ground in September, McGuire said.
In downtown Lower Lake, gaps exist where buildings once stood and business owners have decided not to rebuild, including the Shipleys. But for those remaining, business is picking up.
Business at Maynard’s Sports Bar is improving, said bartender Kathy Crist. About a dozen people were at the bar or playing pool late on a recent weekday.
The Lower Lake Café, under new ownership, has moved to a larger storefront and expanded its menu. There’s less competition and the small restaurant is now thriving, said Dena Isaacs, whose daughter owns the café.
Isaacs, who works at the café, lost much of her dog grooming shop to the fire but has since rebuilt. She’s beginning to see a positive shift in the town, with those staying beginning to rebuild while joined by an influx of new people buying properties from those who’ve left. She’s optimistic about the town’s future.
“I’m hoping that, through this, Lower Lake will be better,” she said.
The only way to get through the ordeal is to look to the future with optimism, Carolyn Shipley said.
“Like I tell my children, ‘Today is tomorrow’s memory, so you’ve got to make today good,’ ” she said.