I just had to write the recap of the Valley Fire for the Star and Calistogan this year. To me and to tens of thousands of people, it was more than just one of the Top 10 stories of 2015, it was the defining event of the past year, because we lived through it.
We have lived in our Hidden Valley Lake home for the past 30 years and in our neighborhood, six homes were saved (including ours) and 22 were burned to the ground, completely destroyed. The fire was so intense, it left just ashes. From one of my neighbor’s homes, I picked up a melted piece of aluminum and magnesium, all that was left of a mag wheel from a car.
Those burned-out cars and trucks have been piling up on a tow yard lot adjacent to Highway 29, just south of Hidden Valley Lake. There never seems to be fewer of the burned out vehicles, even though they are regularly hauled away.
On Sept. 12 as the fire grew from 20 acres to 400 to 10,000 to more than 50,000, firefighters and other emergency personnel were focused on getting people out of their homes. There was no way firefighters could battle the blaze, it was moving too fast — estimates are that it burned 37 acres a minute as it raced from Cobb Mountain to Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake and threw burning embers more than 5 miles ahead of the main blaze.
Eventually, it took more than 4,400 firefighters from all over California to put out the fire, which destroyed 76,000 acres and 1,900 structures, including nearly 1,300 homes. It was the third most destructive wildland fire in California’s history.
We continue to recover from the fire. Crews continue to cut down burned trees, haul away the burned cars and trucks and use heavy equipment to tear out foundations and clean up the burned houses. From the end of my driveway on Sept. 13, I saw six burned homes. On that Sunday morning, I used a press pass to gain entrance to Hidden Valley Lake so I could take photos of the destruction. The difference between our house being saved and a neighbor’s house being burned was the width of a street.
Today, crews have cleaned up all but one of the houses, put down burlap and wattle (to contain the rainfall when it comes) and seeded the lots.
Last week, the crews cleaned up the burned-out Hidden Valley Lake Auto Body, which is located on Highway 29, and soon will begin cleaning up the little that’s left of Havy’s Mexican Restaurant, which is adjacent to the auto body shop.
All of our neighbors have found new places to live, either renting or staying with family. Some of them will return and rebuild their homes. Others don’t want to go through the pain of rebuilding, including hassles with insurance companies and getting permits from both Hidden Valley Lake and Lake County officials.
One of our burned-out neighbors said she’s glad to have a roof over her head, but adds that it doesn’t feel like home. In their yard, they have put up small, solar-powered Christmas trees.
Another neighbor, whose house was saved, usually puts thousands of Christmas lights on his house. Not this year. There’s Santa Claus on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, as usual, with the words “See you next year,” painted on Santa’s toy sack. In front of Santa are the words that ring so true, especially this time of year: “Miss You Guys.”
The roaring wildfire hit the communities of Middletown, Anderson Springs, Cobb and Loch Lomond much harder than it hit Hidden Valley Lake. In those communities, four firefighters were injured and four people were killed, unable to evacuate before the fire swept over them.
Earlier this month, the memorial services for one of those killed, Leonard Neft, was held at the Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church, officiated by Father James McSweeney. After the services, a gathering was held at the Middletown Lions Club building at Central Park. Neft was a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who moved to Cobb Mountain probably some 25 years ago. I met him at a Christmas party thrown by his mother, Trudy Neft, and we talked about bicycling. (In San Jose, he rode his bike on the bed of the railroad tracks to get to work, which he said was safer than riding on the streets. Somewhere there’s a newspaper photo of him doing just that.)
After moving to Lake County, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, a Lakeport daily newspaper, and I worked with him when I was editor of the Clear Lake Observer American, a twice-a-week newspaper based in the city of Clearlake. Neft was a reporter who focused on rewriting community news briefs and news obituaries of prominent people.
After he left the newspaper, he worked at a local gas station/convenience store owned, in part, by his brother, a real estate agent in Middletown. I remember Leonard was particularly good with customers and always liked to keep the property clean and spotless, which I suppose was a never-ending task.
In writing the recap of the Valley Fire, I was glad to find out that the four firefighters who were injured on Sept. 12 are recovering at home, and the one who sustained the most injuries is undergoing rehabilitation. All four were based at the Boggs Mountain Helitack fire station on Cobb Mountain.
They each sustained second-degree burns and were injured when they had to deploy their shelters as a wall of fire swept over them.
So, I’m glad to see the end of 2015. And, I’m thankful for all the help, donations and volunteers from Napa County to help the victims of the Valley Fire. I’m hoping that our communities continue to recover and rebuild, although I know it will take years before all the families are settled again. I can’t wait.