Middletown at a crossroads as residents return

With their town heavily damaged by the Valley fire, Middletown residents will have to decide whether, and how, to rebuild.|

MIDDLETOWN — Craig Eve wants to show off a picture of his new home.

Wearing his red work vest and standing behind the desk in the hardware department of Hardester's on Main Street in Middletown, Eve thumbs through a few photos on his phone before finding the one he's looking for. He turns the phone around to show a visitor the picture: a barren landscape of scorched earth, with a chimney rising up in the middle of the frame.

'That's my new house,' he said, a small smile on his lips. 'That's how I look at it.'

Eve, a Middletown resident for two decades, lost the house that has been in his wife's family for three generations. He is currently sleeping in the back office of Hardester's because he doesn't want to miss work — it helps to help others.

Eve vows he will rebuild his home and believes the rest of Middletown and the surrounding areas will be rebuilt, too.

The questions of when and how remain uncertain.

Middletown, a community of about 1,300 people, was devastated by the Valley fire, which erupted suddenly and furiously one week ago Saturday.

The smaller, surrounding communities of Cobb, Hidden Valley Lake, Harbin Springs and Anderson Springs also were hard-hit by the blaze that has devoured about 75,000 acres, destroyed hundreds of homes and left at least three people dead.

Schools have been shut for a week, and hundreds remained unable to return to their property until an evacuation order was lifted midday Saturday.

While downtown Middletown emerged largely unscathed, residential blocks that were once home to teachers, shopkeepers and service workers were destroyed, raising the question: Even if people do want to stay, want to rebuild, can they? Where will they live? And if their place of employment burned, where will they work?

The only guarantee for residents of southern Lake County is drastic change.

'Everybody's lives will be different after this,' said Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown, whose district includes Cobb.

As the lights flickered on and some people returned to the area in the middle of last week, people crowding into Cowpoke Café in downtown Middletown were optimistic.

Chomping plates of steaming eggs and bacon cooked and donated by the owners, many of those who lost their homes said they would stay put. Some planned to move into recreational vehicles or friends' homes while they use insurance money to rebuild.

'I'm not going anywhere,' said Chris Simon, who lost the St. Helena Creek double-wide mobile home she shared with her husband and grandchildren. 'I've lived here all my life.'

Martha Menzio's longtime tire business also burned to the ground along with the homes of three of her employees. In between sips from a hot drink, the 65-year-old woman spoke assuredly about her plans.

'Oh, we will rebuild,' she said. 'No question.'

But with renters making up as much as 30 percent of Middletown's population, many residents may not feel so root-bound.

Middletown Manor, a 50-unit apartment complex on Highway 175 and Barnes Street, was completely destroyed along with an unknown number of other rental units.

Some renters may relocate to other parts of Lake County or the greater North Bay, where they are likely to encounter higher rents than they are used to.

'The rental market was already tight,' said Greg Evans, a real estate agent based in Lower Lake. 'Now, it's going to be even worse. We're encouraging people to rent their vacation homes if they have them. Insurance companies will pay a premium for them.'

A spokesman for the management company overseeing Middletown Manor said the owner plans to rebuild, but it could take 12 to 14 months, weather permitting.

Meanwhile, county school administrators fear that if fire officials' estimates of 1,000 structures lost hold true, it could lead to the departure of up to 500 students.

Some may be forced to relocate immediately. Others may not return.

'Where do all of those people stay?' said longtime Middletown High School football coach and teacher Bill Foltmer. 'Are they even going to come back to our school? Before we think about football, we wonder who's even going to come back to school here.'

'That is the fear,' said Middletown High School Principal Bill Roderick. 'These kids, they might not have a choice. While you rebuild there is not a large rental market in the county. Where are you going to go? That's our fear.'

Roderick knows of what he speaks. His home in Hidden Valley Lake burned to the ground. The trailer for the freshman class homecoming float sits charred on his driveway.

'We are like all of the other families in this community. It's gone,' he said.

Roderick estimated that of the 130 employees in the district, 25 have lost their homes.

The fire burned a high school maintenance shed and the building that housed an alternative education program. That the fire burned to the very edges of the campus without burning the main buildings or athletic grounds is astonishing, Roderick said.

He's taking it as a sign.

'They chose to basically make Middletown High School their Alamo,' he said of firefighters.

'There is no telling what the damage to the community, long term, would have been' had the school burned, he said. 'The community is super proud of what they have. To lose that would have been devastating.'

Getting the schools of Middletown Unified School District open and filled with students, teachers and staff is imperative, Lake County Schools Superintendent Brock Falkenberg said. But the smoke and soot damage at many sites makes it unsafe for staff and students to return.

The district hopes to open all schools except for Cobb School by the end of the week or Sept. 28. It will likely be two months before Cobb School, located in the heart of some of the most extensive damage, can be made safe for staff and students, according to Middletown Unified School District Superintendent Catherine Stone.

Cobb students are expected to be temporarily relocated at campuses in town, she told parents in a message Friday.

'The schools really are the center point of most of our communities,' Falkenberg said.

But teachers, coaches and counselors are also among those who lost their homes.

The leaders of the community are tasked with not only rebuilding their own lives but rallying others to rise up, as well.

'As educators, we have to take care of the kids,' said Tony Hart, a physical education teacher at the high school and the junior varsity football coach. Hart's home burned to the ground. His wife, Lisa, lost not only her home, but her classroom where she taught at the alternative education program.

'One day you have it all, you have everything,' she said. 'The next day, you have the clothes you are wearing.'

School officials said reopening the campuses remains a priority, not only to get kids back in school but to give the community a place to gather — for football games, for soccer matches, for a place to see normal life re-establish itself.

'You walk in the library at Middletown High School and there are third- and fourth-generation graduates on the wall,' Roderick said. 'That school is a safe house, a meeting place.'

In the days since the blaze erupted, Hardester's, the grocery and hardware store on Main Street, has served as both a lifeline and water cooler for residents eager for information, comfort and hope. On Sunday, less than 24 hours after the fire ignited, the doors were open and for those without cash or means to pay, clerks dispensed items on credit.

'It was easy to do,' said owner Ross Hardester, whose grandfather opened the store in 1943. 'These are our longtime friends and customers.'

The store ran on generators provided by PG&E until Wednesday, when power was restored to parts of town. Hardester said customers were snapping up tarps, shovels and gas cans.

His store, along with two others in Cobb and Hidden Valley Lake, will be a mainstay as the area recovers.

Early on, rumors swirled that the Middletown location had been destroyed by the fire, he said.

'Then people saw the lights on,' Hardester said. 'I think it was a psychological boost.'

In front of the automatic doors, neighbors share stories, offer tips and share gear.

'I think a lot of people say, 'I got to dig in,'' said Calvin Higgins.

Higgins spent Saturday night fighting off the approaching flames with 5-gallon paint buckets loaded with water from his swimming pool. He spent the night on his porch of his Pine Street home and woke up to a house still standing.

Robert Loudermilk's house burned to the ground. But Loudermilk isn't going anywhere.

'It's going to be years,' he said of Middletown's recovery. 'It's a community where the store opened and gave you whatever you needed. How do you beat that?'

Down the street, restaurateur and rancher Lisa Browning's Cowpoke Café bustled with life. The initial loss of power meant all her perishable food had to be discarded. But she bought fresh bread, eggs and bacon from Hardester's and cooked free meals for firefighters, police or anyone else who wandered in.

Grateful and exhausted people, many of whom stayed behind to try to protect their homes, hunched over plates of food and talked in low tones about what some have said is the worst disaster in the county's history.

'My house was burned to the ground,' said Ron Kelly, a Dry Creek Annex resident since 1999. 'Just destroyed.'

Kelly said he will build a new home but wasn't sure what to do about his downtown car repair business, which also was leveled.

'I'm on the fence about it,' Kelly said. 'First, I'm going to get a trailer, put it where my house was and hire someone to clean up and rebuild.'

In the meantime he was staying with tablemates Mike and Karen Jones, 'bathing in their doughboy pool and doing my laundry in there, too.'

Karen Jones, a Middletown High School agriculture teacher, said their home south of town was spared in part because her husband, who is the principal of Kelseyville High School, cut a fire line around it with a tractor.

She worried about her students and the future of the town, which had just bounced back after the recession. The median home price in Lake County had risen to about $187,000, according to Zillow.

'We weren't rich in the first place,' Jones said. 'A lot of people rent.'

But she said a silver lining could be a surge of employment opportunities for carpenters, service workers and others as Middletown stages a comeback.

'One way to look at this is there should be more jobs,' she said. 'Local contractors won't have to commute (to other places) anymore.'

Principal Roderick, a former football coach, sounded a tone of resilience, almost defiance, when talking about Middletown's recovery.

'We are a proud, blue-collar community that believes in hard work,' he said. 'We will rise up out of these ashes, and we will be better for it. That's who we are.'

For complete wildfire coverage go to: www.pressdemocrat.com/wildfire.

You can reach Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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