Editor’s note: David Stoneberg is the editor of sister paper St. Helena Star
A bronze baby’s shoe, a grandmother’s wedding ring, a sword given to a young boy many years ago, an unbroken glass bottle and a dented toolbox. These are all the treasures recovered from the ashes. All that is left of several homes in the Hidden Valley Lake subdivision. Homes devastated by the raging Valley Fire, which started Sept. 12 and wasn’t out 10 days later.
Eddie on seeing his destroyed home for the first time, standing there, head bowed, unable to speak. He had known his two-story stucco home was burned beyond recognition, but the reality of a home he built with his own hands now destroyed was nearly too much to bear.
Firefighter after firefighter stopped by in their trucks, offering cold water, words of condolence, asking if there was anything they could do on a hot Sunday afternoon. Eddie and his wife, children and friends were all wearing gloves, jeans, closed-toe shoes or boots, using shovels to sift through the ashes. Eddie was looking for a sword his father had given him when he was 7 years old, shortly before he died. Thirty minutes later, Eddie found it. It was battered and bruised and a little worse for wear, but it was found.
John, the middle son of Ray and Linda, grew up in the home that was now just ashes. Ray’s burned PG&E truck had been hauled away. John, who also lives in the gated subdivision of Hidden Valley Lake, brought his family to help sift through the ashes. He found a bronzed baby’s shoe. It might have fit his foot years ago. Today, maybe more than ever, it is cherished.
Across the street, Richard was searching through the ashes in what was left of his garage. His beer refrigerator was in the corner, next to the concrete foundation. In the center of the garage was an exercise bike. Both were burned and are now junk to be hauled away. Richard was upbeat, stoic: He said he no longer has to clean out that garage. And, he added, the fire gives him an opportunity to rebuild a new energy-efficient house. He has an offer to stay for free in another subdivision in Kelseyville – but that’s too far away from his work and his community, where he belongs.
Jackie, too, had brought her car to the burned-out wreckage of her rented house. She was searching for anything she could find; a bottle and a ceramic bowl were gently placed on the driveway, away from the debris.
As of Tuesday morning, the Valley Fire had burned 76,067 acres and was 75 percent contained, according to Cal Fire. The community of Cobb Mountain, where the fire began at 1:24 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12, was still closed to residents. Cal Fire estimates 3,861 fire personnel in 372 engines were on the fire lines. Some 1,910 structures were destroyed and a majority of those, 1,238, were single-family homes.
At noon Saturday, Middletown residents were allowed to go back to their homes. The cars started lining up on Tubbs Lane at midmorning, hours before Caltrans and CHP officers would allow cars to head north on Highway 29. Tubbs Lane was crowded most of Saturday afternoon as credentials and addresses were checked to make sure only Middletown residents got through the checkpoint.
Middletown had electric power. Hardester’s, a grocery and hardware store, was open. The 24-hour Chevron station and convenience store was pumping gas and selling fast food. The downtown commercial district was not destroyed as some rumors had it. There is only one burned building, a flower shop. The rest were not damaged by the Valley Fire.
At noon Sunday, Caltrans and CHP officers let Hidden Valley Lake residents through the checkpoint without checking credentials. It took only an hour to get from Tubbs Lane to Hidden Valley Lake, which was amazing considering how many people wanted to get home. Everywhere we went we were welcomed back home: We passed the Twin Pine Casino with its huge “Welcome Home” sign, and as those in uniforms passed out information, we said, “Thank you,” and they responded with “Welcome home.”
For some, it was an afternoon of cleaning out the refrigerator: the food spoiled, put into plastic bags and then into plastic garbage cans.
Going to the local market for essentials took longer than expected, since the store manager had to turn off the power for 15 minutes. How did he save the food at his three grocery stores?
On Sunday, Sept. 13, the day after the Valley Fire began, he was able to get generators to his Middletown and Hidden Valley stores, so very little was lost.
His Cobb store, though, was another matter. It was too dangerous to get there: there was no refrigeration, so all of the food spoiled. He is still arguing with the insurance company. He, like many others, lost his house on Cobb Mountain. It will have to wait.
Four firefighters were injured fighting the blaze, and three residents died in their homes.
One of those who died in Anderson Springs, Leonard Neft, was a police reporter for the San Jose Mercury News years ago. After he came to Lake County, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, but that, too, was years ago. Leonard was a loner, a man who liked to be alone. His body was found near his destroyed home.
The fire destroyed the Middletown Bible Church, but not the brick school that’s part of the church. Its parking lot and the acre of grassland adjacent were a staging ground for the hundreds of PG&E employees and their trucks who have been working 24 hours a day installing new power poles, getting the wires up off the ground and the power turned on.
How many times have I driven from Hidden Valley to Calistoga, to St. Helena for fun, for work, for church in the 30 years I’ve lived in HVL? Hundreds of thousands of times, maybe.
On recent mornings going through Middletown, I saw a vibrant downtown as workers and their trucks gathered: Daveys tree service, AT&T and Servpro joined together to rebuild the town. They were joined by others, insurance companies, relief organizations, including the Red Cross based at Twin Pine Casino, all working hard to get life back to normal. It will be a long process but so many people in the Napa Valley have offered help, prayers, monetary donations, clothing, a place to stay, for a weekend or an unspecified amount of time.
Together, we will rebuild what was lost.