Middletown at a crossroads as residents return
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.