After the Valley fire, campers face cold, eviction

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For complete coverage of the Valley fire go here

Two months after fleeing the massive fire that destroyed their Middletown apartment along with more than 1,300 other homes and 76,067 acres of forest and wildlands, the Madrigal-Lopez family is still living in a travel trailer at the Hidden Valley Lake campground.

But the onslaught of winter and the planned closure of the campground have them rethinking their limited options.

“It’s very cold,” said Rozio Madrigal, who also recently discovered that the loaned travel trailer leaks when it rains.

Most people displaced by the Valley fire apparently have found lodging at motels, with family, or elsewhere, but for a variety of reasons, some families remained this week at the campgrounds, several sleeping in tents, others in trailers. Still others have set up camp on their fire-ravaged properties as they sort out their next action.

It’s unclear how many people were displaced by the Valley fire, in part because many of the destroyed houses were likely second homes or vacation cabins, Lake County spokeswoman Jill Ruzicka said Wednesday.

About 2,500 people have signed up for some type of disaster assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spokesman Steven Solomon said. Damage from the fire has been estimated at more than $1.5 billion .

Not all of the 30 or so Hidden Valley Lake campsites are occupied by people whose homes were destroyed. Many belong to long-term campers, some of whom had their former campsites destroyed by the fire.

Many have tarps covering their leak-prone tents and trailers to keep out the rain, add another layer against the biting cold and extend their living quarters. The grounds also contain two white tents loaded with food and other donated supplies for the refugees. Outside the supplies tent is a large barbecue and a clothes washer and dryer on loan from the local Moose Lodge.

Within weeks, it could all disappear. The Hidden Valley Lake homeowners association plans to shutter the campground out of concern about flooding from the nearby stream, leaving its inhabitants with no choice but to move on.

Madrigal said she doesn’t know where her family will go. She and her husband have been trying unsuccessfully to find an apartment they can afford while remaining reasonably close to Middletown, about 8 miles from the campground and where their two children, 11 and 17, attend school.

“It’s very expensive, the rent is now,” said Madrigal. Others also have complained about a spike in rents since the fires. There’s nothing available even close to the $730 a month Madrigal had been paying, she said.

To make matters worse, both Madrigal and her husband, Cirilo Lopez, are now unemployed. Her husband’s seasonal vineyard work in Napa County has come to an end and her job as a cook went up in smoke when Harbin Hot Springs burned down in the Valley Fire.

FEMA has offered motel vouchers to fire-displaced families, but there aren’t a lot of temporary options in Lake County.

The emergency agency has contracted rooms at the shuttered Konocti Harbor resort, where more than 50 families are now housed. More units are available, but it’s located nearly 30 miles from the schools Madrigal’s children attend.

Her 17-year-old daughter, Alejandra Lopez, said she doesn’t mind remaining in a campground if it means she can graduate from Middletown High School with her friends. She has attended schools in Middletown since first grade.

For complete coverage of the Valley fire go here

“This is my last year,” said Lopez, who plans to attend college and study criminal justice.

Except for the lack of Internet access and a computer — the family was away when the fire erupted and they lost all their possessions — it’s not too bad living at the campground, said Lopez, who was heating tortillas on a camp stove after school on Tuesday.

“It just makes it harder” to study and complete homework, she said.

Other fire refugees residing at the campground, which has been free of charge, also prefer to stay put until they can figure out their next move.

Toby Hickman, 43, a Safeway meat cutter who drove through flames to escape the fire that consumed his roommate’s home in Anderson Springs, plans to continue to live in the trailer his parents purchased until he saves enough money for a down payment on a house.

“I’m looking for a place to buy,” he said.

So is Stephen Archer, a construction worker who has been living in a travel trailer with his wife and children. They have renters’ insurance that would pay for temporary accommodations, but they had hoped staying at the campground would allow them to save more money for a house.

Meanwhile, people who owned homes that burned are waiting as cleanup efforts continue to remove dead trees and toxic debris left in the Valley fire’s wake. Just over 200 of more than 1,000 properties have been cleared of debris, a step that’s required before building can begin. The properties also must have building pads and sewer and water hookups before one of FEMA’s temporary modular homes can be installed.

Only a few have been permitted, officials said. FEMA also is seeking a location where they can install multiple units for renters, Solomon said.

Cobb Mountain residents Gary and Laura Lynn Ledson aren’t waiting around. With help from church members and local water and utility agencies, they cleared an area on their property and installed a cozy trailer equipped with creature comforts and satellite-fed television.

“We wanted to live here because it’s our home,” Gary Ledson said. They’re still working out insurance issues, but have hired an architect.

Their once-lush, forested neighborhood is drastically altered by blackened trees and destroyed homes. But they’re able to see the positive side, like the views that have been revealed by the loss of trees.

“Now we can see the sunset fully,” Ledson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@ On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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