By Alex Emslie
The towering walls of flame that rampaged across an area more than double the size of San Francisco are gone. Lake County’s famous clean mountain air no longer carries the acrid smell of creosote.
But clouds of smoke have been replaced by a fog of uncertainty as the county tries to tackle a host of challenges in the wake of the Valley Fire, which burned more than 76,000 acres.
Perhaps the biggest job facing the county as it tries to recover, officials say, is making sure that the thousands of residents who lost their homes in the blaze can stay. That means rebuilding the 1,280 single-family residences and 27 multifamily buildings the fire destroyed.
Katy English, whose house in Cobb burned down, is among the estimated 3,000 Lake County residents the fire made homeless.
“Housing was already hard to find before the fire,” she said. English and her three kids, ages 3, 10 and 11, have been living with her mother in Kelseyville for about a month now.
“If they want people to stay in this county, they’re going to have to step up and help,” she said.
But concerns about the mountains of toxic ash left by the fire are slowing the rebuilding process. A widely anticipated wet El Niño winter could also unleash landslides that carry toxic materials into local waterways.
“I believe that we will lose some people,” said Jack Long, Lake County’s director of economic development. “But I think it’ll be much less than what most people would expect.”
In addition to the loss of housing, Long estimates 10 percent of businesses in Lake County have been either damaged or destroyed.
Many surviving businesses have reopened. Others are waiting on insurance claims for smoke damage or to replace stocks of perishable goods lost in the weeks that communities like Middletown, Cobb, Loch Lomond, Anderson Springs and Hidden Valley Lake were under mandatory evacuation orders and without electricity.
Dean Nicolaides owns Dino’s Loch Lomond Market at the intersection of Highway 175 and Loch Lomond Road. Firefighters staged for one of the early battles against the Valley Fire in his parking lot, Nicolaides said, which is likely why his shop and other tenant businesses in his building were saved. But houses all around, including his own, were burned to the ground.
“Literally 1,200 out of maybe 2,000 houses are gone, and the ones that are left might not find it agreeable to be in a construction zone,” he said. “I consider this area devastated.”
Nevertheless, he and his wife Lena are committed to staying.
“We have to, of course,” he said. “We’re the store owners here.”
He said most people he knows want to rebuild and will stay in Lake County for as long as they can.
“This is a mountain community,” he said. “They’re an unselfish lot, and I think that they’re here because they loved it to begin with. It’s not an easy life up here. It’s not a life with a lot of amenities, just beauty and trails. People who like that tend to want to stay in it”
Among State’s Poorest Counties
Lake County isn’t an affluent place. The Census Bureau says one-quarter of the population lives below the federal poverty level. State data show the county’s unemployment rate rose to more than 17 percent at the height of the Great Recession.
“The state has not been as active or engaged as they should have been in Lake County,” says state Sen. Mark McGuire, who represents the region. “It’s one of the poorest counties in the state. It’s one of the unhealthiest counties in the state.”
He recounted preliminary estimates of the Valley Fire’s impact on the county’s revenue: a 12 percent loss to sales tax, 5 percent to property tax, 35 percent to hotel tax and 16 percent to energy royalties from the damaged Geysers geothermal plant.
“It’s been a helluva 90 days for the county,” McGuire said, mentioning the Rocky and Jerusalem fires that together burned nearly 100,000 acres north and east of the Valley Fire in late July and August. “There have been economic struggles here for years, and this fire is only going to impact those struggles.”
County officials reported last year that the county was finally recovering from the recession, with declining unemployment and rising hotel taxes. In August, the county reported a 6.6 percent unemployment rate.
“I think we were on a strong track to start growth back here before the fire,” Long said.
But early on the afternoon of Sept. 12, a small fire started outside a residence on Cobb Mountain. Within hours, the blaze had turned into a wind-driven monster that put thousands of residents to flight and devoured homes by the hundred. By dawn the next day, the fire had burned more than 60 square miles.
Olivia Spence fled from Cobb Mountain with her infant son and many of her neighbors to Middletown, where they watched the flames barrel down toward them.
“I felt like it was its own kind of entity,” she said in a phone interview a couple of weeks later from Santa Rosa, where she’s been staying with family. “It was this living demon almost, which is kind of strange to say, but it felt like that.”
The fire consumed her home but spared her little coffee shop. which she opened a couple of years ago in Loch Lomond. It was a dream to own and operate a gathering place for her community, she said. Now she’s unsure if it can stay afloat.
“I don’t know how many people are going to move back, how many people want to live in a place where all the trees are completely scorched and basically looks like a bomb went off,” she said. “And because I have an 8-month-old son, I’m particularly concerned about the air quality and environmental quality during the cleanup. … I don’t really think it’s worth it to keep going and to reopen and expose him to that.”
Among the dangers in the charred landscape: asbestos and heavy metals left behind from burned homes and outbuildings.
The state Office of Emergency Services recently requested about $67 million in federal funds to aid the cleanup from the Valley Fire and the Butte Fire, which burned hundreds of homes in Amador and Calaveras counties. If the Federal Emergency Management Agency agrees to pay, it would cover about two-thirds of the estimated cleanup cost.
Cal OES Deputy Directory Nancy Ward says the faster environmental cleanup is finished, the faster people can start rebuilding.
“It very much is an economic recovery issue,” she said.
For the time being, Lake County’s economy is being propped up by a myriad of revenue sources related to the disaster.
Emergency FEMA funding is flowing to those who lost property in the fire. The federal Small Business Administration is offering low-interest loans of up to $2 million to those whose saw their enterprises destroyed or damaged. A local credit union is offering $5,000 one-year, no-interest loans to Valley Fire victims. Out-of-towners, including firefighters, PG&E crews, tree trimmers, Red Cross volunteers, news crews and others, are spending money at local businesses.
“Right now there’s a tremendous amount of help,” said Spence, the Loch Lomond coffee shop owner. “But how long that is available, what it actually means after, and when the real cleanup and rebuilding starts, is up for debate.”
Officials can’t pinpoint a date when fire and environmental cleanup trucks will be replaced with those carrying lumber, tools and carpenters to job sites, but it’s safe to say Lake County is banking on a building boom to carry it through the next few years.
“All of this rebuild that’s going to happen in this county is going to create jobs like we haven’t had in five years,” Economic Development Director Jack Long said.
Contractors and out-of-work carpenters are already getting ready. The county hosted a job fair in Kelseyville to connect them in late September. Hundreds crowded the high school auditorium to pass out resumes to dozens of contractors posted at folding tables.
Middletown resident Geoffrey Huckabay showed up looking for some general carpentry work. His job as an electrician at Harbin Hot Springs burned up with the famed retreat.
“I do need a job,” he said, adding that he wasn’t that concerned about finding work, given the expected surge in construction. He said he’d moved to Lake County to work at Harbin — a dream job. And even though the retreat plans to rebuild, that’s not why he’s decided to stay.
“The reason I’ve decided to stay at this time, even though Harbin is no longer there, is people are real,” he said. “People who we wouldn’t normally have talked to or connected with are just coming together, and we can recognize each other and really see each other. It’s a very unique experience and I want to be a part of that.”
Sukey Lewis of KQED contributed to this report.