Lake County Kids Ready for Something to Celebrate After Valley Fire
Elizabeth Haston, 7, attends International Charter School in Middletown. She says Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday. Her grandmother's home burned down in the Valley Fire.
As families gather for Thanksgiving in Lake County, they will be surrounded by a landscape transformed by September's devastating Valley Fire. The hills are black with dead brush. Construction crews regularly stop traffic on the county’s two-lane roads. And felled trees lie by the roadside in piles, waiting for massive logging trucks to collect them.
But while the holidays might look a little different this year, many families say they still have something to celebrate.
On a sunny fall day last week, I caught up with students at the Lake County International Charter School in Middletown. About 50 students, ages 7 to 13, ran around the small schoolyard. A group of preteen boys shot hoops on the basketball court, and another knot of kids hung upside down on the jungle gym.
As the kids wandered past, I stopped to ask them about their holiday plans.
Elizabeth Haston, who is 7, said Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday, “Because I get to see all my family.”
“I’m gonna spend it with my family and my auntie and my mom,” 11-year-old Cayla Carr said. “We’re gonna have turkey and pie.” Cayla said she’s planning to cook mashed potatoes.
But underneath all the yelling and the laughter (and talk of pie), the memory of the fire is never far from surfacing. For many of these kids, this fire was their first experience of deep loss. They are are still grieving.
“Thanksgiving is gonna be a bit different,” 12-year-old Christian Wofford said, “because there might not be as many people as there used to be because some people might not still have homes.”
Christian lost everything when his home burned to the ground in the September fire. He says what he misses most is a painting that he did with his grandmother.
“It was outside of her house. It was like a dirt road with a few trees around and a grassy meadow next to it,” he said.
Christian said he and his family are about to move into a new home. At this small school, a dozen families and four staff members lost their homes. Now they are staying with relatives or in rentals.
Even the kids whose houses made it through the fire are still in shock. Kalee Smith, 13, was two hours away at an amusement park with her mom and her best friend when the fire started. But her dad and her two little sisters — ages 7 and 11 months — were at home in Hidden Valley.
Kalee’s dad called from the road as he tried to evacuate with the two younger girls.
“There was fire all around them and they called my mom, and they were telling them about how they might not survive, and they were saying that they were really sorry,” Kalee remembered, her voice breaking. “And I was telling him I love him, and he was telling me, 'I love you back.' ”
While it’s clearly going to take time to totally heal, there is also a real sense that these kids have a whole new take on Thanksgiving.
“This Thanksgiving I’m really thankful for the fire not burning my house down,” says 12-year-old A.J. Dawkins. “Very thankful.”
“I’m thankful that all my friends are OK,” 9-year-old Spencer Cox said. “It was really scary, and I cried 'cause I thought our school burned down, but I’m glad that everything’s OK.”
Of course, everything isn’t totally OK. The wreckage of 1,200 homes still hasn’t been cleared away. Rebuilding a community will take even longer. But it is underway. There were free Thanksgiving events all week here in Lake County, and for those who need a place to go today, the Twin Pine Casino is hosting a communal feast.