Campground’s closure likely to displace Valley fire victims

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HIDDEN VALLEY LAKE — At a campground on the outskirts of this rural Lake County subdivision, people forced into a nomadic lifestyle when the massive Valley fire consumed their homes are reluctantly preparing to relocate once again.

The campground — bordered by streams — is prone to flooding and is scheduled to close Monday for safety reasons, according to Hidden Valley Lake Association officials. The association, which owns the facility, has provided free camping, showers and bathrooms to scores of fire evacuees since the Valley fire raged through 76,067 acres in southern Lake County, destroying nearly 1,300 homes and 27 multi-unit complexes. The blaze displaced thousands of residents.

“We’re very concerned about the health and safety issues,” said Charles Russ, director of operations for the homeowners association.

Most of the campground tenants have been living in trailers, some borrowed, some purchased with loans or money from Federal Emergency Management Agency grants. Some previously homeless people, mostly living there in tents, also have been staying at the campsite.

The campground residents have been offered other options and roughly half already have moved, according to county officials.

Rozio Madrigal and her family recently joined about 50 other families living in one-bedroom suites and apartments at the formerly shuttered Konocti Harbor resort, which was reopened to accommodate people displaced by the fire. The resort has a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide housing. It means a longer commute for Madrigal to take her children to school in Middletown, but, unlike her trailer, it’s warm and dry, she said. And unlike area rents, which reportedly have climbed dramatically since the fire, the price is right.

But not everyone has the same housing options, and still other fire refugees have rejected the options they have been offered.

“For various reasons, they’re choosing to stay (at the campground),” said Carol Hutchingson, the county’s long-term recovery coordinator and director of Social Services. The county’s recovery website lists a number of other RV parks in the county, but they all have fees ranging from $10 a night to $35 a night, and many of the evacuees are trying to save as much as they can to help rebuild their lives.

The situation is particularly problematic for former homeowners who were uninsured and who received maximum FEMA grants — $32,900. The lump-sum payment makes them ineligible for any additional rental assistance, including camping fees.

FEMA has reported disbursing $6.4 million — $3.4 million of it for housing — so far to Lake County residents, Hutchingson said. FEMA reported late last month that 552 families were receiving rental assistance. Of those, 99 were homeowners, she said. About 100 FEMA modular homes also are expected to be loaned to displaced residents.

Homeowners will be able to place trailers or modular homes on their properties, but only after the sites are cleared of debris — toxic and otherwise — and have power and septic systems inspected and approved.

The process is cumbersome, taking a lot more energy, paperwork and time than displaced former homeowner Stephan Wasik, 61, ever imagined.

“I’d say it was a full-time job,” he said. “We hoped our property would be cleared” by now.

Instead, he and his wife, Pam, were making arrangements Friday to temporarily move their 2007 travel trailer — purchased with their FEMA grant — to property owned by some friends.

They’re trying to avoid paying rent in order to save as much money as they can in hopes of rebuilding their Cobb-area home, which was uninsured. Their insurance company earlier this year chose not to renew their policy, Wasik said. He’s hoping to qualify for a home rebuilding assistance program but is still figuring out the requirements, like his share of the costs.

Wasik lost his ability to work when his home burned. He’s a global currencies trader but cannot conduct business without a secure, high-speed Internet connection. He also has built decks and redwood furniture, but his tools were destroyed by the fire.

“All my ability to earn an income, gone,” Wasik said.

On the opposite side of the campground from Wasik, Cathy Green, 46, on Friday was trying to get the RV she’s been living in operational with help from a friend. She brightened as the engine turned over, but she said she still doesn’t know where she and her 15-year-old daughter — who has been living in an adjacent borrowed travel trailer — are going next.

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” Green said. Like Wasik, she’s received the $32,900 maximum FEMA grant but is trying to save the money in hopes of rebuilding the home she inherited in Anderson Springs. She also was uninsured, and her sole income is from disability payments.

She also received $1,500 from local donations but said she needs more money if she’s to rebuild. She criticized the county, saying it should do more to help displaced residents.

Hutchingson said the county, state and federal officials, multiple charities and many individuals all are working diligently to help people get back on their feet.

“They’re all trying to come up with ways to help,” said Dennis Purcell, who belongs to a church group that is part of Team Lake County, an umbrella organization for the agencies helping fire victims.

Bernie Hosmer, 46, a former renter in Hidden Valley Lake, said he hasn’t figured out where to go next. The mobile home parks the county has lined up for displaced residents are largely unacceptable, said the former carpenter, who is disabled.

“They want you to go to Clearlake Oaks. I may as well take my family to freaking Oakland,” he said.

Nico Santacroce, 60, lost his home of 20 years and his job when Harbin Hot Springs burned to the ground. He both lived at the resort and worked there as a masseuse. Santacroce said a number of people from outside the county have offered him places to stay for a while, but he prefers to remain in Lake County for now. He said he wants to stay put while he deals with his loss of community, home and work.

“I think I’m still in shock. It’s hard for me to think ahead,” Santacroce said.

He said he will be moving to a parcel of land near Middletown, where he can stay in a borrowed trailer for about six months while he figures out his next step.

The campground residents are among thousands estimated to have been displaced by the fire. Their exact numbers and their locations are not known. Some likely are staying with family, while others may have found rentals, purchased new homes or permanently moved out of the county, said Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown.

“There are 5,000 to 6,000 people wandering around. I don’t know where people are,” he said.

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

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