In California's Burn Zones, 'Resilience' Is More Than a Buzzword
LOWER LAKE, Lake County -- We hear a lot about “resilience” these days -- in the face of climate change, social injustice and, of course, it’s the common currency of official post-disaster sound bites.
"This is a resilient community," declared Mark Ghilarducci, the head of California’s Office of Emergency Services, last week, after he'd surveyed the streets of Lower Lake, a tiny town in Lake County savaged by the recent Clayton Fire. "And collectively, we’re gonna work together to make it as good as it ever was in the past."
The resiliency bite seems like low-hanging fruit for an official surrounded by reporters — until you actually meet some of the people who embody this resilience.
When I met the Skidmore family, fire crews were still hosing down hot spots on what remained of their property on Main Street.
“Welcome to Lower Lake!” was the first thing Michael Skidmore said to me. "You’re about a week late. It was much nicer last week."
His sense of humor wasn’t the only thing intact. Surrounded by gray ruins after the Clayton Fire swept through his town of about 1,300 people, his 4 Starr Auto Repair shop somehow remained standing with what looked like minor damage.
But up in back, the family home was simply gone, with little left among the ashes to even indicate "home:" the remains of a water heater, some metal chair frames and the skeleton of a pickup truck.
Also gone: eight cabins they rented out to other Lower Lake residents.
"We worked really hard for five years to restore those cabins," reflected Michael’s wife, Starr. "They were white with blue trim to match the shop and white picket fences around each one."
"They’ve been here for about 100 years," added Michael. "But dry cedar, boy howdy. I was running out the front door and these were popping into flames. It was scary."
Next door, both the home and business were a total loss. Formerly the local VW shop, the property was littered with the charred husks of cars, many trailing solidified silver puddles of melted aluminum wheels and engine blocks.
Hours earlier, I had seen some firefighters sifting through the ashes next door. Joe Morrison and his Sonoma County team were among those who tried to save this block of Main Street.
"This happened super-fast," said Morrison. "We did our best to make a stand here and then, the heat was so intense, so fast -- we had to cut and run."
Looking around, Michael estimated that perhaps 70 percent of Lower Lake's commercial core was lost. Two doors down, even the local Habitat for Humanity office was gutted.
"Everybody was trying to assure us that, no, it would not get down into Lower Lake," recalled the Skidmores' granddaughter, Grace, who lives with them.
"They were gonna take control of it and the next thing you know, there’s a tree in the back that burst into flame, dropped on the ground and the fire was coming down the hill at us and we were running out of there."
Now, they were back, with the ruins still smoking, and Grace was looking for her three cats with a 15-year-old's optimism that no one wanted to dash.
"I’m not gonna cry," said Michael, tapping a seemingly bottomless reservoir of energy.
"No," he insisted. "Gotta move on."
He doesn't mean that literally. For this family, “moving on” means staying put. It wasn’t even up for discussion.
"I’ve got my job and I’m gonna keep working," Michael vowed, "but ... where’s my customer base, you know? They’re ashes."
And then, doubling down on his resolve: "I gotta rebuild, and the funds gotta come from somewhere."
That will be challenging; the Skidmores say the insurance on the home and cabins might have lapsed. The shop survived, but it’s all they’ve got now. Michael said the shorts and brown tank top he had on were all that remained of his wardrobe. To even ask people like this where they get their pluck is to trivialize it.
"Hey, it’s gonna take a lot of polishing to get that silver lining out of this — but it’s in there somewhere."
He found a thread: the nearby Wal-Mart was about to reopen, which meant he could buy some new clothes. It’s not hard to see where Grace, who has been raised by her grandparents since the age of 3, gets her buoyancy.
"This is just gonna bring Lower Lake closer together," she insisted.
"I mean, we were already pretty close from the Rocky Fire and the Valley Fire [last year], but this is just another step to closeness."
As of a week after the fire, no cats had turned up. The three were still looking for long-term housing. But Grace was already readying her audition for the school play. And Starr, who appears on the brink of tears much of the time, said, “God’s got this.”
How to help victims of the Clayton Fire in Lake County.