Remembering the Valley Fire: The Day My Childhood Burned
A house in Cobb mountain destroyed by the Valley Fire. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)
On a Saturday evening in September, I sat watching two good friends get married in their Sonoma County backyard. As they offered their vows, I reflected on my own wedding three years earlier. It was at Bonanza Springs -- an abandoned Lake County resort and campground where, as a teenager, I’d tromped through the oak leaves listening to Nirvana on my Walkman and shared illicit cigarettes with my friends.
It was my escape from a world of hormones and crushes and the reality that my mother was dying of brain cancer.
Although I no longer live in Lake County, getting married there seemed a way to tie my past to my future. On that Saturday, as I watched my friends tie their own knot, I had no idea that my childhood was burning.
Sunday, the day after the fire started, was my son’s fourth birthday party, in Sebastopol. By then, I’d heard about the blaze ripping through the homes of my friends and family, but I still couldn’t quite believe it. Every summer fires happen -- thousands of acres of wildland burn here and there -- but this was something different.
The Spider Man jumpy house was ready and the juice boxes sat sweating in the afternoon heat as a dozen evacuees and their kids wandered in, looking shellshocked and sleepless. The party turned into a refugee camp.
My friends’ cars were packed with the strangest things: basketballs and remote controls, birth certificates and kids' paintings. Because what do you take when your whole life is about go up in smoke?
The kids ran circles around their stunned parents in tiger costumes and princess dresses. The adults sipped beer and cried and murmured the same useless phrases over and over.
“How are you doing?”
“Did you hear?”
“Did you see?”
“Where were you?”
When my friend, Harp Gerakin, got word there was a fire nearby, she started cleaning her house -- thinking she’d be able to take people in.
“I spent about an hour cleaning the house,” she said. “And then I looked outside and saw enormous billowing smoke right over the mountain and flames coming out of the top of the hill right next to us, and I was like, I think, I should be packing our stuff instead.”
Harp’s house burned to the ground.
I was supposed to work on Monday, but I hadn’t been able to sleep, and I couldn’t think straight. I needed to see it for myself. I thought maybe by reporting, I could pull some context, some order out of the chaos.
One of my friends, Danya Parkinson, was driving into the fire zone to check on the family home and retrieve his wife’s baby photos from her parents’ house -- if it was still standing. So I headed into the mountains in the back seat of his truck, part of a convoy of residents escorted in by Cal Fire to get pets and valuables.
As we took the back way onto Cobb Mountain, I rolled down my window and inhaled.
Lake County in the summertime smells of pine and manzanita, and always a whiff of fire. My hometown is a place of mountains, dirt roads, hippie hot springs and meth labs. The people who live here opted out or were born in this place of trailers and mobile homes and could never hitch them up to leave. As we drove into the tiny hamlet of Loch Lomond, though, the fire was more than a whiff.
But still we couldn’t see it. The trees alongside the road stood tall and green -- a strange stillness the only thing that hinted at the wreckage ahead. Aside from our small convoy and the occasional PG&E truck, there were no cars on the road, no neighbors milling about in their yards or feeding their livestock.
The Cal Fire escort led us past the corner store where we used to buy candy: still intact. Then, all of a sudden a wall of thick gray smoke rose up out of the valley next to us, and a black streak marked the road where fire ripped through the scrub brush.
The destruction started coming faster. We passed a burned-out Toyota, the tires reduced to circles of soot against the asphalt.
“Holy moly,” I murmured. “That is just totally, totally gone,”
We drove past the house I grew up in. Gone. The house where my mother died. Gone. The house where my son’s godmother lives -- or lived. Gone. And then, amazingly, a friend’s childhood home stood, completely untouched.
The fire appeared to have left claw marks on the side of the mountain, dragging many houses completely to the ground while leaving others unscathed.
Blue pine smoke lingered in the air and small spot fires still burned on the hillside. Cal Fire directed us under a downed power line -- the end of the power pole glowing like a lit cigarette. We parked and I got out to look around.
As I walked the small road where I skinned my knees learning to ride a bike, my steps were punctuated by the massive crashes of trees eaten up by fire.
So many houses were just gone -- a weird kind of absence with so much weight to it. Heirlooms and house cats and refrigerators and memories -- all reduced to piles of ash and twisted metal.
A flock of wild turkeys wandered by, gobbling and hungry but unsinged.
Like the turkeys, Danya’s family home also survived.
“There was fire literally 6 inches from the house on three sides,” Danya said. “A total miracle that it’s still standing.”
But I wondered: What would be left of this community? These are people who have carved their homes out of volcanic rock and red clay. Who have huddled together during power outages and shoveled each other out when they got snowed in. Who in the face of this fire needed each other more than ever.
The night the fire started, after packing their own belongings, one family rescued a neighbor who has Parkinson’s and can’t drive. The few residents who were either allowed in by Cal Fire, or somehow dodged the roadblocks, hurried to help their neighbors -- feeding cats and checking on their friends’ homes. Some grabbed shovels and rakes, making firebreaks to protect the homes of loved ones and even strangers.
“Just 2 feet make a difference,” my friend Amos Schieber said. “A few leaves that touch up against the plastic pipe, or whatever, you got a fire. And I should know -- I lost two houses.”
The sun had long since set as I squeezed back in Danya’s truck next to the rescued photo albums. On the drive back, the fires still burning looked like hundreds of small campfires along the hillside.
As we headed past the Loch Lomond Store, red lights flashed behind us and we pulled over. There had been reports of looters in the area and the deputy sheriff wanted to make sure we were legit. I pulled out my press pass and, after a few minutes, he let us move on.
That night -- or morning rather -- I stayed at a friend’s place to sleep for a couple of hours. At daylight, I headed home to Richmond. But before I could make it back to my 4-year-old and my house with all four walls and a roof, I had to pull over. I couldn’t see through my tears.
Being a reporter in this situation feels so useless and small. When everyone you know has lost something, what is there to say? Because it is not just things that have burned. It’s a whole ecosystem, a whole way of life that’s not there and is not going to be the same for a long time to come.
The scale of the fire continues to baffle me. Facebook is a minefield of loss. Now, when I talk to my friends, we discuss insurance and flashpoints and make lists of what to pack in case of an emergency. For those who lost everything, we donate clothes and give to GoFundMe.
We hug each other a lot. We tell and retell our stories and theirs. We value everything that didn’t burn.