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