Lake County marks a milestone in Valley fire recovery
Two years after the Valley fire swept through southern Lake County with a speed and fury seared into the psyches of those who experienced it, public officials and residents will celebrate a significant achievement in the county's recovery Saturday.
About 100 people are expected to gather in the ravaged creekside community of Anderson Springs to break ground on a hard-won $10.5 million wastewater treatment project that will enable rebuilding to proceed.
But they'll honor, as well, the grit and tenacity of the individuals and agencies that have devoted two years to the county's recovery already, and look ahead to the continued challenge of getting hundreds of still-struggling fire victims back on their feet.
“People are getting excited about coming back,” said Anderson Springs resident and community leader Voris Brumfield, a one-time Lake County supervisor, church pastor and president of the Lake County Historical Society.
To that end, Saturday's event also will celebrate $7.2 million in low- and no-interest loans through the state's CalHome program to facilitate the construction of 80 to 100 homes. The homes will be built mostly by volunteer labor through two nonprofits, Hammers for Hope and Habitat for Humanity of Lake County.
To say the Valley fire inflicted substantial damage on the already strapped rural county would be a serious understatement.
Sparked by faulty hot tub wiring at a home on the side of Cobb Mountain and whipped into a monster by erratic, gusting winds that drove it 18 miles across dry, rugged terrain in just 12 hours, the blaze eventually scarred 120 square miles of land, destroying 2,000 structures, including 1,281 homes.
Four people were killed on the first day, including two in Anderson Valley. The fire raged on for a month, raising damage estimates in Lake County to $1.5 billion overall.
But among the hundreds of homes lost in communities like Hidden Valley Lake, Cobb and Middletown, the toll on Anderson Springs was marked for its thoroughness.
Where 197 homes once were nestled in the forested hillside community, only 19 were left standing once the fire sped through, leaving a bleak and empty expanse in its wake.
In addition, anyone in the community who wanted to rebuild was confronted by a distinct problem.
Anderson Springs had grown up around a popular 19th century resort, a collection of small summer homes constructed along narrow, curving roads criss-crossed by streams. Under modern regulations designed to prevent waterways from becoming contaminated by human waste, most of the lots no longer qualify for leach fields and septic tanks because of their proximity to the creeks or their size.
Officials say 119 Anderson Springs home sites were ineligible for building permits until a wastewater solution could be worked out and funded, a daunting challenge.
The inability of Anderson Springs to move forward despite what's otherwise been a very busy, productive summer in the burn zone was “a glaring hole in the recovery process,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, who will preside over Saturday's 10 a.m. celebration.
Lake County Community Development Director Robert Massarelli said 84 single-family homes, 41 manufactured homes and two duplexes have been completely rebuilt in the Valley fire scar, and several hundred building permits have been issued. But reconstruction in Anderson Valley has lagged despite gradual progress toward funding and designing a new sewer system through the collaboration of federal, state and county officials.
But now, it is ready to go, thanks to grant-funding that includes $7.4 million from the State Water Resources Control Board, $1.9 million from the California Department of Housing and Community Development, and $1.1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to Lake County Special Districts Administrator Jan Coppinger.
The plan is to build a system that will carry wastewater from Anderson Springs to a treatment plant in the town of Middletown. The initial construction will include lateral pipelines for 310 parcels, 100 of which will be fully connected to the sewer at no cost, officials said.
After that, anyone else will have to pay to connect, a cost expected to be around $20,000, though still well below the cost of installing a septic system, Coppinger said.
“It's going to open the doors for homes that otherwise won't be able to rebuild there,” said Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown of Kelseyville, whose supervisory district includes a large swath of the burn area.
Bids are to be opened in October, with construction expected to take 18 to 24 months, McGuire said.
“I think the bottom line of this is we know there's a lot of work in front of us, but we wanted to take a moment Saturday to celebrate this significant milestone for Anderson Springs,” McGuire said. “I think many of us were skeptical that this day would finally come, but it's finally here.”
Saturday's event will include remarks from Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, among other dignitaries. It begins at 10 a.m. at the Anderson Springs Recreation Center off Highway 175 and is free and open to the public.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.
Editor's note: A typo in an earlier version of this story resulted in an incorrect damage figure for the Valley fire. The correct figure is $1.5 billion.
Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat
I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment.