A year later, Valley fire’s massive toll in Lake County means long, difficult recovery ahead

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Where homes were lost in Valley fire

Middletown (includes Anderson Springs): 562

Cobb: 445

Hidden Valley Lake: 144

Loch Lomond: 71

Whispering Pines: 36

Lower Lake: 22

Pope Valley: 1

Total: 1,281

SOURCE: Cal Fire Valley fire damage assessment report

More Info: PDF: Valley Incident Damage Inspection Report

COBB — Burned trees stand like blackened toothpicks on the seared hills of southern Lake County, where one year ago this week, an almost unstoppable inferno raged across the land.

Everywhere are scars of the devastating Valley fire, which exploded in a terrifying, wind- and drought-fueled run to torch 40,000 acres in the first 12 hours and burn 76,000 acres in all as it spread from the mountain community of Cobb to Anderson Springs, Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake.

It would take at least four lives and consume nearly 1,300 homes, becoming the third-most destructive wildfire in California history.

Along Highway 175, a curving ribbon of new asphalt connecting the hardest-hit neighborhoods, abandoned mailboxes line driveways leading to still-vacant lots. Standing gates and bird baths hint at the houses lost in the blaze.

Victims who returned live in motorhomes, trailers and, in a few cases, tents. At its height, the fire displaced more than 20,000 people. The forest that once shaded and sheltered many of their neighborhoods has been decimated. Cut, charred timber is piled along the road.

The blaze erupted during an already epic fire season and it was followed last month by the Clayton fire, a smaller yet still-destructive blaze authorities said was started by a suspected serial arsonist from nearby Clearlake. That fire once again shattered nerves and reminded residents of their fragile existence in the fire-prone region.

“No other county has seen the intense destruction Lake County has seen firsthand,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, who estimated nearly a quarter of the county had been touched by fire in the past 13 months.

Rebirth amid ruin

Yet amid the unprecedented ruin, estimated at $1.5 billion in losses, there is rebirth. New construction rises from bulldozed lots. The sound of pounding hammers can be heard as contractors clamber over rooftops. Patches of green foliage poke from scorched ground.

Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown looked across fire-ravaged Cobb Valley near where the blaze started and considered the future. Over the next decade, the hope is that scenes of heartbreak and destruction will give way to fortitude and rejuvenation.

“It will heal,” said the longtime Kelseyville resident, standing outside his pickup on the site of the destroyed Cobb Mountain Community Fellowship church.

But there is much work to be done given the scale of the destruction, which wiped out whole residential blocks, ruined key businesses and placed life for thousands of Lake County residents into limbo.

Sheriff Brian Martin described the fire as the “worst tragedy” the county has ever seen. In some cases, recovery is uncertain.

Obstacles to rebuilding

Nearly 2,000 buildings were destroyed in the blaze, including 1,281 homes. It was sparked Sept. 12, 2015, authorities say, by faulty wiring to a hot tub at a Cobb-area home.

Insured losses totaled $840 million, the state Department of Insurance reported. As of June, insurance companies have paid out about $500 million on 3,500 residential and commercial claims.

Numerous obstacles stand in the way of rebuilding.

Many damaged homes were older, vacation-style cabins constructed without regard for modern fire-safety and septic standards. A large number of the 192 houses lost in Anderson Springs, for example, would now be deemed too close to the creek to accommodate septic systems, so rebuilding for many will be delayed until a new $7.5 million wastewater system is in the works. Others were on tiny, oddly configured lots where current setback requirements can’t be met.

Where homes were lost in Valley fire

Middletown (includes Anderson Springs): 562

Cobb: 445

Hidden Valley Lake: 144

Loch Lomond: 71

Whispering Pines: 36

Lower Lake: 22

Pope Valley: 1

Total: 1,281

SOURCE: Cal Fire Valley fire damage assessment report

More Info: PDF: Valley Incident Damage Inspection Report

28 percent uninsured

In addition, many residents simply cannot afford to construct new homes. About 28 percent of those who lost homes were uninsured, said Carol Huchingson, Lake County’s chief administrative officer. People have left the county in search of jobs and housing, but it is unclear, based on county figures, exactly how many. Others have moved to neighboring communities — or even out of the county — because they can no longer face the vast destruction the fire wrought.

The trend is driven in part by job and housing shortages in the aftermath of the fire, which increased the price of the remaining homes and rental units. At the same time, a glut of burned-out lots has softened land prices. Many have been listed in the $20,000 to $32,000 range, down significantly from going rates before the fire.

“People bought elsewhere and decided not to rebuild,” said Cobb real estate broker Timothy Toye, whose office windows are covered with new listings. “They are starting to put their lots on the market.”

But others are staying. A county survey last February of 350 people who lost their primary residences indicated more than half planned to rebuild. So far, the county has issued about 200 residential building permits for traditional and manufactured homes. Many more are in the pipeline. Construction appears mostly spread among Cobb, Gifford Springs, Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake.

Some said it’s the first new wave of construction in the area since before the onset of the recession a decade ago.

“It’s sort of a silver lining,” Toye said. “Hopefully it will sustain itself.”

McGuire, who has been on the front lines of recovery efforts along with Brown and Huchingson, said he’s secured money for the Anderson Springs sewer project from California’s Department of Housing and Community Development, but more is needed. Construction could start next year and take up to 24 months to complete, he said.

The senator said other wildfires over the past 13 months — including the Clayton and last year’s Rocky and Jerusalem fires — have been an extreme blow for the rural county, which depends on tourism tied to Clear Lake and is ranked among California’s poorest counties.

“That’s why we’re working every day to get resources,” said McGuire, whose North Coast district includes Lake County.

Millions raised to help

Financial aid has poured in from government and private sources. Local charities raised more than $4 million and groups such as the American Red Cross and others gave out clothing, food and rental subsidies.

A $5.2 million state project to build homes for underinsured victims of both the Valley fire and more recent Clayton fire is underway. Nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity and the church-based Hope City are organizing the work.

“If you drive through you’ll see construction breaking out all over,” Huchingson said.

Cobb residents Gary and Laura Lynn Ledson were among the first to return home, setting up camp in a trailer on their leveled property off Highway 175 just a few weeks after the fire.

Laura Lynn Ledson, 67, recalled seeing the flames last September atop the mountain from Middletown.

The sight was beautiful and horrifying at the same time — “almost mesmerizing,” Ledson said. “This was Armageddon.”

As the flames died down, Ledson said, there was “a moment of silence, and I said, ‘We’re rebuilding.’”

Her husband, 73, disagreed at first, but then changed his mind and never looked back. They hope to be in their new home for Thanksgiving.

But so far they are the exception on their road, Evergreen Drive, which formerly had 19 homes. Only one other house is under construction.

Ledson said she looks forward to her neighbors returning, but has never felt lonely. The couple once lived more than a mile from their nearest neighbor in Colorado.

In fact, they’ve enjoyed being able to yell for their cat in the middle of the night and being able to hoot and holler at the top of their lungs during football games.

“We joke ‘Quiet, you’ll wake the neighbors,’” she said, laughing.

Battling red tape

On a desolate street in Anderson Springs, Stanley Swint last month watered a small garden patch where asparagus, onions, a little kale and wild strawberries sprang up after the fire that destroyed his home and those of most of his neighbors.

The uninsured Middletown High School maintenance worker plunked down some of his FEMA money for engineering on a manufactured home, though he’s now back to square one planning for a different house after learning the initial unit he had ordered was too narrow to comply with county code.

“I wake up still and feel like just driving away, selling the lot,” said Swint, 64. “I think a lot of people feel that way.”

Frustration with red tape is dogging the rebuilding process for many victims. Permit approval is taking four to six weeks following the submission of completed applications.

Joshua Dixon, 30, and his wife had closed escrow on their original home only three days before the Valley fire ignited below their hill, crossed Bottlerock Road and swept directly upslope on its way toward Highway 175. Theirs was among scores of homes wiped out in the area. The home where they’d been living near Gifford Springs Road and which they still owned was destroyed as well.

Dixon described rebuilding as an endless exchange “with insurance companies and mortgage companies” and county planning officials.

County takes big tax hit

County planners are making efforts to streamline the process but stress that they can’t bypass regulations on construction near waterways.

The county also can’t afford to hire more processors. Recovery costs topped $11 million, and the loss of so many homes resulted in a $2 million hit to property taxes the county collects.

In addition, the county expects to lose $150,000 in hotel bed taxes and about $100,000 in sales taxes, Huchingson said. It’s a major setback for a county that was operating in the black before the 2015 fire season, Brown said.

“This year we won’t have that distinction,” Brown said. “It has really broken us.”

State costs include a $59 million firefighting bill and about $166 million for cleanup.

Overall economic costs, including losses to infrastructure, total roughly $1.5 billion, said Steve Bowen, director within the Impact Forecasting team at catastrophe analyst Aon Benfield. About $950 million was covered by insurance, he said.

The Valley fire was the state’s first billion-dollar fire since San Diego’s Witch fire burned nearly 200,000 acres in 2007, Bowen said.

“It was clearly a big event,” said Bowen. “For a state that is historically one of the more active in terms of wildfire damage, it played into the stereotype, unfortunately.”

The four people known to have died in the fire were caught in their homes or fleeing their neighborhoods.

They are Barbara McWilliams, 72, of Anderson Springs; Leonard Neft, 69, of Anderson Springs; Bruce Beven Burns, 65, of Hidden Valley Lake; and Robert Taylor Fletcher, 66, of Cobb Mountain.

A fifth victim is suspected to have been killed in the blaze, although no remains have been found. Robert Edward Litchman, 61, was at his Lower Lake home prior to its destruction.

He has not been seen or heard from since, according to an investigation report of the Valley fire.

Road to better days

One bright spot in the recovery is the 12-mile stretch of roadway — Highway 175, a lifeline to the Cobb Mountain communities that bore the initial brunt of the fire and a thoroughfare between Middletown and Kelseyville.

The fire’s heat melted much of the asphalt. Additional damage came from cars abandoned to burn on the roadway and toppled power lines. Flames took out signs and wooden guardrail posts and melted plastic culverts.

It took five months for crews working 12-hour days, seven days a week, just to clear the dead and dying trees. Then the highway was rebuilt, repaved and restriped. The smooth, black surface is a symbol for some in the region of better days ahead.

“It rides nice, doesn’t it?” said Gary Lambeth, a consulting contractor on the Caltrans project. “That’s a really nice job.”

Other rebuilding projects are yet to get underway and appear daunting. They include a planned consolidation of several small water supply systems in Cobb and demolition and cleanup of Hoberg’s resort. Crews in hazardous-materials suits are clearing asbestos and other debris from the 1880s landmark, which had undergone $2 million in renovations before it was destroyed. Its crumbling foundation and chimneys are still strewn with charred remnants of the once-grand lodge.

Harbin Hot Springs, a popular clothing-optional tourist destination that was heavily damaged in the blaze, is being rebuilt. Operators have received permits and have begun construction on some pools.

A first phase could open for guests later this fall.

County roads suffered about $75 million in damage from both the emergency response to the fire and cleanup.

Huchingson said there’s no point in doing the roadwork until other infrastructure projects are done.

“You’d just have to repair them again,” she said.

At the same time, FEMA has provided about $7 million in aid for housing and food.

The state cleared 1,100 properties at a cost of about $160 million.

“We’re still in the early stages of recovery,” Huchingson said. “There’s so much to do. Hopefully we’ll be making tremendous strides at the three-year mark. But infrastructure will be slow.”

At the same time, “it’s an opportunity to make the community better than before,” she said.

Concerned merchants

Many fire victims share that hope.

Fletcher Thornton, who lost the Middletown rental home he shared with his wife, said many people are taking advantage of the chance to rebuild.

More than 500 homes were destroyed in Middletown — including Anderson Springs — the most across all of the communities. Thornton, chairman of the town council, says Middletown has an edge because it has a central sewer and water system.

He estimated 20 of the houses lost have been rebuilt, including his own.

“Everybody’s busy who wants to be busy,” Thornton said. “Lots of work here and most of the builders are local.”

But like other southern Lake County locations, the construction is not enough. A large, multi-unit apartment complex that was destroyed in Middletown will not be replaced. Hundreds of people who cannot find housing have moved away, Thornton said.

Although the business district remained largely intact, there are fewer people shopping in local stores, Thornton said, relaying a concern shared by merchants.

“You’ve got to have customers,” he said. “That’s where we’re short.”

Across town, with classes back in session, the lunch bell rings at Middletown High School and students pour into hallways. Principal Bill Roderick said even though 90 students and 14 faculty members were burned out of their homes, school enrollment is at 476 students, slightly higher than before the fire. Roderick said some families moved elsewhere in the county but kept their kids in school.

“Enrollment is a lot better than we thought it would be,” he said.

“We’re working hard to keep an even keel.”

Roderick’s own Hidden Valley Lake house was destroyed in the blaze along with his wife’s long-cherished 16th birthday present — a 1966 Ford Mustang parked in the garage.

Also, his oldest daughter was packed to leave for college at UCLA. All her belongings burned.

He lost irreplaceable keepsakes, including wedding pictures.

He and his family live in a travel trailer on their property while their home is being rebuilt. Roderick said he promised his wife it would be bigger and better as a condition of remaining in Lake County.

“Fingers crossed for Thanksgiving,” he said. “It’s been a challenge, that’s for sure.”

Meanwhile, Brown, like many of his county colleagues, has spent nearly every day working to address problems related to the Valley fire.

His cellphone rings almost constantly with calls from constituents seeking help. Among his priorities are cutting down the dead trees. They remind everyone of the fire, and they’re dangerous.

“I think the recovery is going really well,” Brown said.

“Some people think we should be rebuilding 1,280 homes right away. We’re not. But I think we’re going at a good pace. It’s one we can manage with our staff and gives local contractors the work. I couldn’t be more proud of the community they are rebuilding.”

Staff Writer Glenda Anderson contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne. Reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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