Lower Lake staggered by Lake County’s endless bout with wildfire

After last year, Lake County's bout with wildfire seems endless. The latest blaze, the Clayton fire, scarred Lower Lake, which had been spared from the destruction.|


Dennis Woodland and his wife, Diane, never bothered to lock the doors in their home on a quiet block behind this rural town’s historic Main Street.

The couple often sat on the covered patio in the evenings, watching deer and other wildlife wander down from the forest on the ridge above their house. Woodland, a general contractor, said he stored $100,000 worth of tools in a trailer parked on the street.

“It’s a small town. People have your back here,” Diane Woodland said.

Many of the 1,600 residents in this southern Lake County enclave cherish it as a place of refuge. They are a mix of urban transplants, blue-collar workers, retirees and public and private-sector commuters with jobs across the county line. Some are from here and others have relocated, opting out of the Bay Area’s expensive hustle-bustle and settling down within sight of the south shore of Clear Lake, the freshwater destination that is Lake County’s geographic heart and economic engine.

But the fire allegedly sparked last Saturday by an arsonist shattered much of that peace as it overran Lower Lake, destroying nearly 190 homes, eight downtown buildings and a number of historical structures, among them the Odd Fellows Hall on Main Street, the community’s oldest building, dating to 1868.

The blaze had burned about 4,000 acres and was 90 percent contained late Saturday, a day after authorities lifted all remaining evacuation and road closures. It is the fourth large wildfire to hit southern Lake County in the past 11 months, with the three fires last summer regarded by residents as the worst disaster to hit the region in generations.

In those fires, Lower Lake was menaced on two sides but escaped without damage. The rural landscape to its east lost about 50 houses in the Rocky and Jerusalem fires, and to the west, the Valley fire destroyed nearly 1,300 homes in Cobb, Anderson Springs, Hidden Valley and Middletown. Four people were killed in the Valley fire, the third-most destructive blaze in state history, and altogether more than 170,000 acres were burned.

This time, the flames that raced into Lower Lake on Sunday leveled entire neighborhoods, including those south of Main Street, the Copley Creek subdivision and homes on streets named after horses: Quarterhorse Lane, Appaloosa Road, Palomino Court. More than a quarter of the community’s total housing burned to the ground based upon the most recent census data, which showed a total of 733 housing units.

“These folks live paycheck to paycheck,” said Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown while he toured the fire zone last week in his pickup.

The median household income in Lower Lake is $31,781. The county’s unemployment rate is 6.6 percent, above the statewide average of 5.5 percent.

“It’s not like they have a reserve stashed away to get them through a rainy day,” Brown said.

The fire destroyed a Habitat for Humanity office, a winery, a deli, an auto shop and an antiques store.

Also lost was a sense of safety that may not return to this ravaged community for a long time.

Evacuation orders that stood until Friday meant that many residents were unaware for most of the week what their homes’ status was. Lower Lake schools, which were supposed to open last week, are tentatively expected to open Tuesday.

The return of raging wildfire so soon to this rattled area had some who witnessed the worst of the destruction last year at a loss for words. Nearly every town in southern Lake County is now scarred, with hundreds more residents now displaced and facing a difficult struggle to rebuild their lives. Many here live in a near-constant fear of yet another blaze breaking out, their eyes scanning the sky for new signs of smoke. The county’s bout with wildfire seems endless.

“It’s been very devastating,” said Brown, as he stood next to what remained of the transitional kindergarten classrooms at Lower Lake Elementary School, the burned structure leaning precariously to one side.

Staring down the inferno

When the Clayton fire broke out Saturday afternoon on a rural road south of Lower Lake, residents in the area had already had their fill of emergency calls due to wildfire for the summer. Four days earlier, dozens of homes on the town’s outskirts had been evacuated in the face of a pair of blazes that sparked within minutes and a few miles of each other.

At least one of those fires, a blaze that burned 14 acres off Seigler Canyon Road, is among the 12, including the Clayton fire, that authorities say arson suspect Damin Pashilk set within the past year in Lake County.

The Clayton fire is the largest of those suspicious blazes, authorities said. Pashilk, 40, of Clearlake, who investigators had been watching for a year, was charged Wednesday with 15 counts of felony arson. He has yet to enter a plea.

The fire began at 4:58 p.m. Saturday in dry grass along Clayton Creek Road. It drew an immediate, urgent response from firefighters on the ground and air tankers and helicopters making drops to curb its growth. It swelled to 1,400 acres by daybreak Sunday, when firefighters appeared to have a grip on the blaze, but then exploded that afternoon amid dry winds and temperatures in the high 90s.

Dennis Woodland said he stared down the approaching inferno from atop his roof, where he used a garden hose to douse his family’s home. His 21-year-old son, Travis, hosed down a neighbor’s house.

Firefighters raced down Main Street, staking out positions to battle the wall of flames. Woodland said he knew it was time for him and his son to go when their garden hoses lost water pressure. The pair fled in a Chevy Silverado pickup just prior to the home catching fire and burning to the ground.

Diane Woodland had escaped earlier with five of the family’s seven cats and two dogs. Thursday night, the couple were surfing Facebook when they spotted a photo of another of their cats. The badly burned animal had been found by Lake County officials and taken to a veterinary clinic in Lakeport, where it is in intensive care.

“We’re so relieved,” Dennis Woodland said. “The material things, they can be replaced. But your pets are your family.”

Former county seat

The Woodlands moved to Lower Lake six years ago for many of the same reasons others have settled here. They were charmed by its laid-back vibe and historic facades, and its lower cost of living. Neighborhoods tucked within the forested hills and along Cache Creek afford quiet and privacy.

The heart of the community is at the juncture of Highways 29 and 53, between Middletown and Clearlake. Most visitors don’t make the turn onto Main Street, the city’s commercial center lined with a feed store, a bar, a candle shop and a hodge-podge of other businesses and local government services.

“I don’t think it quite registers with them,” said Tony Pierucci, Lake County’s museum curator. “I think they think it’s just another way-stop on the highway. There’s a gas station and a place to eat.”

Lower Lake, officially known by the federal government as a “census-designated place,” has no mayor or city council. Its affairs are managed by the county.

The town once held prominence in the region as a hub of government and commerce, including as a port for commercial boat traffic. Cache Creek, which flows from Clearlake, once supported a thriving mill industry. Quicksilver mines were another economic draw.

Lower Lake was the county seat for a period of time in the late 1800s prior to Lakeport wresting that honorific in a bitterly contested election that resonates today. Some argue it would have made more sense for Lower Lake to have retained the seat because of its proximity as a gateway to the Bay Area and central Lake County.

Grace Gale recalled fond childhood memories of stopping in Lower Lake for supplies on the drive to her grandparents’ house in Clearlake, on what were then dirt roads. Her grandparents, along with several other members of her family, are now buried in Lower Lake Cemetery, which was spared damage from last week’s fire.

Gale said prior to her mother’s funeral service last May, she gathered with family for lunch at Sammi’s Deli on Main Street. The deli and the adjacent Tuscan Village Winery were leveled by flames Sunday.

“I can still visualize sitting there last year having lunch in the little town and people walking on the sidewalk,” said Gale, a resident of Annapolis, Maryland. “I don’t mean to be dramatic, but it’s part of your childhood and then all of a sudden, poof.”

Ignored evacuation orders

Many of the people here maintain a prideful independence that showed in their stands - ill-advised and dangerous, fire officials say - to defend their properties against the flames last week despite orders from authorities to evacuate.

Outside his home in Rivergrove RV Park last week, Charles Davy spoke about moving to Lower Lake for financial reasons and to put some distance between himself and the memory of his late partner, who was killed in a car crash outside their Oakland residence. Davy is a substitute postal carrier and the owner of a business offering pleasure cruises on Cache Creek.

He ignored orders to evacuate the RV park last week because he said he couldn’t take his 30 birds with him.

His home survived as did the RV park.

Lacey Frey and her husband also stayed behind at their Cape Cod-style home of nearly 30 years on Bonham Road east of downtown.

Standing on the porch, Frey, a retired school librarian aide, looked across the street at a walnut orchard. She said it’s not uncommon to see someone riding a horse down the street. Her husband, Wes, is a retired Lake County sheriff’s deputy.

“We could have gone anywhere and made more money, but the lifestyle wasn’t worth it,” she said.

The fire did not damage their home or property, but a scar in the concrete surrounding their backyard pool will be a lasting reminder of the helicopter pilot who this week lowered a bucket into the water to use for dousing flames that threatened the home.

“It’s OK,” Frey said. “It’s a story.”

Unique recovery challenges

The rebuilding process has been underway for months in the neighborhoods and half-dozen communities hit by the trio of wildfires last year. In the Valley fire alone, the estimated damage topped $1.5 billion. State and federal money, along with donations from various local fundraising efforts, have helped with the recovery.

But officials said Lower Lake faces unique challenges in trying to recover from the Clayton fire. While extensive, the fire’s toll of destruction is not likely to meet the threshold for the community to receive federal emergency assistance, according to state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.

McGuire, who was in Lower Lake when the fire exploded Sunday and used a shovel to help put out burning embers, is calling for that threshold to be lowered to acknowledge that California is experiencing an unprecedented rash of devastating wildfires. He said rural communities like Lower Lake have been especially hard-hit.

“We can’t expect small, rural counties to be able to saddle the challenges that come along with these catastrophic wild land fire events,” he said.

McGuire said without federal disaster aid, Lower Lake residents will be forced to rely on “nontraditional” sources of funding to help them recover from the blaze. He cited one state fund that can provide residents with up to $60,000 toward the purchase of a new home.

Schools affected

The Clayton fire destroyed the building housing transitional kindergarten classrooms at Lower Lake Elementary School, and damaged or destroyed five portable classrooms, as well as sheds containing athletic equipment, according to Brock Falkenberg, the Lake County superintendent of schools.

While the damages are relatively minor, Falkenberg said the fire’s impact will resonate for a long time among students, teachers and parents. This is the second year in a row that the Konocti Unified School District, which includes Lower Lake, has delayed the start of the school year because of the threat of fire. Classes were delayed by the Rocky fire last year, then canceled again for week after the Valley fire broke out Sept. 12.

In the wake of the Clayton fire, about half of the district’s 3,300 students are scheduled to start classes Monday. The tentative start date for Lower Lake schools is Tuesday.

Falkenberg said the fires have again upended plans and disrupted daily routines, and for the time being removed schools as places where kids can find sanctuary from the trauma they are experiencing from the fires.

Many of these kids already struggle on a daily basis with poverty and other socio-economic challenges. About 85 percent of students in the school district meet low-income qualifications entitling them to free lunches.

“The kids, they’re evacuated, they drive through flames,” he said. “They spend a week in an evacuation center or away from home. The traumas they experience impact their education, not just for the time they are absent, but for the rest of the year.”

Treasure survives

Back on Main Street, two fires that burned through town in the 1930s caused extensive damage. Many of the buildings were rebuilt in a California mission-style that lent the thoroughfare its current charm.

Most of the structures survived the Clayton blaze. However, there are several burned-out pockets where fire again proved a destructive force.

In addition to the Odd Fellows Hall, the tally of historical structures lost in the blaze includes the George Washington Wayne mansion, an adjacent firehouse and a 150-year-old Methodist church.

The fire spared what many consider to be Lower Lake’s most prized historical treasure, a grand schoolhouse built in 1877 that stands sentry at the corner of Main and Mill streets.

Over the decades, the building has hosted funeral services, weddings, dances and silent movies during carnivals. In 1993, it opened as a museum.

Flames marched to the edge of a gravel road and parking lot surrounding the museum.

Fire lines and the building’s stucco-and-brick construction, with composite shingles on the roof, helped save it, according to fire officials.

Last week, Pierucci, the museum curator, opened the windows to air out the smell of smoke.

“We’re thankful the museum is still standing so it can provide people a history of the area,” he said. “But driving down Main Street is never going to be the same.”

The Lower Lake office for Habitat for Humanity was also among the casualties, a sad development given that employees were helping victims of the Valley fire to rebuild.

Danny Glover, who lost his Hidden Valley home in the Valley fire last year, said he used insurance money to purchase a new home in Lower Lake. Before authorities lifted on Friday all remaining evacuation orders, he waited anxiously last week at an evacuation center at Twin Pine Casino in Middletown for word on whether he’d lost that home, too.

“It sucks. There’s no other way to put it,” he said.

On Wednesday, Wade and Amanda Holley stood guard at the Main Street auto repair shop owned by their father. The sliding door to the shop couldn’t be closed with the power out. Authorities allowed the siblings to remain in the evacuation zone to help guard against looters. As of late last week, authorities had reported no arrests for looting.

While the Holleys’ shop suffered only minor damage, nine vehicles outside were destroyed by flames.

“It’s hard to describe how you feel when something like this happens,” Amanda Holley, 22, said. “There are so many emotions, you don’t know what to feel.”

The pair said Lower Lake has changed over the years, with more people moving in. But they said it remains a friendly place, describing how they often borrowed tools from the owner of an auto shop located across Main Street. The business burned down last week.

“Where are all these old-timers who lost everything gonna go?” said Wade Holley, 25.

But the pair said they still see a future for themselves in Lower Lake.

“Oh yeah, it’ll definitely come back strong,” Amanda Holley said. “There’s too many hard-headed people here to let it die.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com.

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