I was working on the east coast when I received news of an unprecedented wildfire in southern Lake County. The Valley Fire, as it would come to be known, was growing at an extreme rate. When my emergency flight back to California landed, more than 50,000 acres had already been engulfed and the fire was only five percent contained. As I drove north on Highway 29, clouds of dark smoke still filled an otherwise blue sky.
The next morning I was set to receive an emergency briefing in Lake County where I would visit the hardest hit areas. I had been receiving routine updates on the fire. I knew how quickly it was spreading and the damage that it had already caused. But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw as I made my way over the Napa County line down into Lake County.
As I drove through communities that I’ve represented for 25 years, the smell of smoke filled the air. Fires were still raging in the distance. And once vibrant communities looked like long-deserted ghost towns.
In places where homes and businesses previously stood, only ashes were left. Once beautiful and flourishing hillsides were burnt black. Cars were melted to the pavement. Livestock, grazing areas and farms were decimated. Lives and livelihoods were lost. Families who have called Lake County home for decades were left with nothing.
At the evacuation centers, the sense of personal loss was inescapable. At the Calistoga fairgrounds, which housed more than 1,000 survivors, I spoke with one man who told me he simply wanted to return home to sort through the ashes. He hoped to find a family keepsake or two that may have survived the fire. When I told him that I had just visited his community and not all of the homes had been destroyed, he said he was certain that he was not so lucky. He watched his home burn in the rearview mirror as he raced to escape the fire.
Tragedies have a way of showing what a community is made of, and the Valley Fire is no different. This is one of the worst fires in California’s history, but it’s shown the absolute best of us. We are a community of strength, resolve, gratitude and generosity.
Firefighters ran into clouds of dense smoke and dangerous, unpredictable and rapidly expanding flames to save people’s lives and homes.
Families that lost everything still found the strength to thank our first responders for their extraordinary efforts.
Armies of PG&E workers took to the streets. Infrastructure that took years to build was replaced in days. The power was turned back on and phones were up and working.
Volunteers flooded evacuation centers to cook for, shelter and comfort the thousands who had been displaced.
Donation centers where overwhelmed with food, clothes and other goods.
State, federal, local and tribal government officials were on hand to provide aid and coordinate response efforts.
Families are now starting to return home, but our recovery efforts are just beginning. So many lost so much that can never be replaced, but our neighbors are still in need and we can still help them get back on their feet.
Many friends from across Northern California have asked where they can donate to ensure the funds go to those in need.
Three local organizations – the Lake County Winegrape Commission, Lake County Winery Association, and Lake County Wine Alliance – have come together to form Lake County Rising.
Our community faces a long road back. It will not be quick and it will not be easy. But we will get there together. In the last couple weeks I’ve witnessed firsthand how we pulled together when times are hardest and people are most in need. That is who we are, and that is how I know Lake County will rise again.
How you can help
You can donate through the #LakeCountyRising Facebook page (facebook.com/lakecountyrising) or on the Lake County Winegrape Commission website (lakecountywinegrape.org/news-events/valley-fire-relief-fund/).
Checks can also be made out to Lake County Wine Alliance, memo “Lake County Rising” and mailed to: Lake County Wine Alliance, P.O. Box 530, Kelseyville, CA 95451.
Mike Thompson is a Democratic Congressman representing California’s Fifth District, which includes Napa and Lake counties.