Puffs of red Lake County dust coat my feet as I walk to the edge of a wide vista. If I unfocus my eyes and look straight out over the valley toward the distant town of Calistoga, I can almost imagine the view as it used to be — a deep-green bowl of pine forest. Almost.
Focusing my eyes again, the hillsides black with dead trees stand out in sharp relief. To my left, weeds hide what remains of a burned home.
This is where I grew up, and where the destructive Valley Fire did some of its worst damage. The fire started on Sept. 12, 2015, burned for weeks, decimated 70,000 acres and 1,280, homes and killed four people. Two years after the fire, the signs of devastation are still conspicuous, but so are the signs of recovery.
“We have birds now,” my friend Deb Helleren tells me. “This is great. After the fire … that was the worst thing for me. There was no birds for months.”
Deb shows me, along the edge of the property, where blackened tree stumps sprout 20-foot shoots of new growth. And to my right sits a cement foundation — the beginnings of her new house.
‘We lost literally everything’
When the Valley Fire first hit the small mountain community in Cobb Mountain, Deb and her partner, Mel McMurrin, weren’t that worried. There are fires all the time up here, and they usually don’t amount to much.
“You can’t ever believe it’s going to happen,” Deb tells me.
But they did grab their cat and their computers before jumping in the car and driving away from their home. Within hours it was ash.
“So we literally lost everything,” Deb says.
Since the fire, Deb and Mel have felt as if they’ve been caught in quicksand, moving six times in two years and trying to keep a job, on top of dealing with the nearly endless task of cataloging their former life for their insurance adjuster.
“The process is overwhelming,” Deb says. “You have to remember everything in your house. How many rolls of toilet paper? How many notepads? How many? It’s like really? You’re kidding me.”
But Mel says what’s hard is not just the drudgery of having to remember everything, “but the dredging up the loss you’re just constantly going through. I don’t have that, I don’t have that. Forgot about that. Oh wait. And then you go down a whole nother [sic] vein of loss because you can’t think of everything you’ve lost all at once.”
And they didn’t just lose clothing, books, photographs, precious objects and a roof over their heads. They lost time.
“It takes so much time to redo everything,” Mel says.
Like a lot of people up here, Deb and Mel made the decision to stay here just in the past few months. After a federal disaster like this, insurance companies usually give you about two years to sort out your claim. Now, as that two-year window comes to a close, many people are finally getting started on a rebuild.
But builders are facing a new crisis. All these new homes going up at the same time means a big increase in demand for building permits. At the same time, three of the county’s building inspectors just quit, leaving many contractors stuck waiting weeks to move on.
“We’re short-staffed,” Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown says. “We don’t have staff on a good day, let alone with all the building that’s going on for the rebuild and just normal stuff that’s going on in the county.”
Brown has come up with a solution to the inspection crisis that pretty well describes the kind of people who live here: If you want something done right, do it yourself.
“Well, I’ve just completed 12 inspections,” he says.
That’s right, Brown is doing it himself. He jumped in to help the building department catch up with the backlog. He says the wait time for an inspection has now dropped from weeks to days.
But even with the uptick in building, 75 to 80 percent of the homes that were destroyed aren’t being rebuilt at all yet. And Brown says he has no idea how many ever will be.
“Valley Fire’s 1,280 homes would be the same as nearly 500,000 homes being lost in Los Angeles County,” he says. “That’s the perspective that I can offer, so you can imagine losing half a million homes in Los Angeles would take decades to recover. And so that’s where we’re at. It’s going to take a long time.”
Living With Fire
The landscape will take time to recover, and so will the people.
“Right now, you can feel how warm it is,” Brown says, lifting his head as the 110-degree heat beats down on us. “In the afternoon when that wind picks up, I guarantee you there’s not a person on that hill that won’t stop and notice that wind and notice the heat.”
A perfect storm of record temperatures, drought and high winds made the Valley Fire intensely destructive, but fire has always been a fact of life up here. Already this summer, there have been a half-dozen small fires in Lake County. One was just a half-mile up the road from Deb and Mel.
“I lost it,” Deb says.
“You know we got the cat carrier out, we got our suitcases out,” Mel adds.
Firefighters put that fire out before it became a threat, but I had to ask Deb and Mel why they chose to stay here, living with fire. They told me there were many practical reasons, such as limited finances, but even more important emotional ones.
“It feels like home,” Deb says.
“The other thing is, when you come close to a disaster like that, you know your mortality is really, really clear,” Mel says.
“In fact, you realize there’s always a fire chasing you. And so you’re going to have everything taken. So it really kind of focuses you not only where you want to live where you are going to die. Where, where, where do I want to be?”
For Deb and Mel that place is here in the mountains, with their loved ones and their community that is slowly coming back.