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My clothes smell like smoke, my car is covered with ashes. But Joni and I are two of the lucky ones, those who have been blessed. Our Hidden Valley Lake home in Lake County – where we have lived for 30 years – is still standing.

In one Hidden Valley Lake neighborhood, 11 houses burned in Saturday’s rampaging wildfire and only six were saved. Southern Lake County, including Hidden Valley Lake, Middletown and Cobb were hit hard by the Valley Fire.

We had left at 8:30 a.m. Saturday to spend the day at the ocean and never knew anything was wrong until we tried to return home Saturday night and couldn’t.

Saturday night, I couldn’t sleep. Will I need to cancel our utilities, we don’t need AT&T anymore, if our house wasn’t still there? What would I miss from our house, what couldn’t be replaced, did Marty survive? So many questions and no real answers.

On Sunday morning, Joni and I went to the 8 a.m. service and Father Mac asked me a question: Is your house still there? I told him I didn’t know and didn’t realize at the time how close it came to being burned down: the width of a neighborhood street.

We are so blessed, because our house was spared, only by the grace of God and the efforts of thousands of firefighters who are still battling the blaze.

On Donkey Hill Road, four houses on one side of the street burned, four on the other side are still standing.

What was the difference between being burned and not? We may never know. It could have been a watered landscape or the space between the houses or the efforts of a man to water down his roof before he and his wife evacuated or the efforts of many to create a defensible space.

One house burned to the ground right next to a house that’s standing. The fire even destroyed one house on Donkey Hill Road but left the adjacent garage and white picket fence. It also destroyed a two-story stucco house, along with a trailer and pickup truck that were sitting in the driveway but left alone the toy plastic trucks that a boy had been using before he left with his family.

From the news reports, the fire’s behavior was unpredictable and it had to be a very hot fire — what it touched it destroyed and turned to ash. The burned cars and trucks are just hulks of their former selves, including a restored, red 1965 Ford Mustang that was parked in a neighbor’s garage. He didn’t drive it much because it needed new brakes. In his driveway he had a new white Mustang. The fire melted the front end and flattened the tire. The family’s other car, a white Mercedes, was also parked in the driveway. It wasn’t touched.

Joni and I are grateful for so many things, the kindness of so many, including our Grace Church family, a house and yard that are undamaged and our cat, Marty, who survived the fire and is living in and around the house.

We are filled with sadness that our neighbors are now homeless: Ray and Linda, Kim and Richard and so many others. Ray works for PG&E, his work truck was parked next to the family car, both are burned. Richard is a teacher at the high school; he has a job when school starts again, but no home.

What were the thoughts of those poor souls who abandoned their trucks by the side of the road — those trucks I saw Sunday morning, some burned, some not. What an unspeakable terror to abandon a vehicle, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic going nowhere, trying to escape a raging fire.

Driving up Donkey Hill Road, I had an amazing feeling of gratefulness and thankfulness, touched by a large dose of sadness. Seeing the houses burned, I can’t help but cry out for now homeless neighbors. I hope they’re OK, I hope they can rebuild their lives and our neighborhood. That, too, will take a long time.


St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star, The Weekly Calistogan and st

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