“I left to do errands and I never got home," she says. "Ever."
Levenson's home burned down in the massive Valley Fire that sparked on Sept. 12, 2015, killing four people and wiping out 1,280 homes.
She lost everything in the Valley Fire, including every photograph from her entire life. The only picture she has left of her treasured home is a satellite image from Google Earth.
“And there would never be home to go to. And not just my home. It's my whole area, my whole town, my region, my county.”
And the disasters did not stop. The summer after the Valley Fire, an arsonist allegedly sparked the Clayton Fire, destroying 300 more buildings and wiping out much of downtown Lower Lake.
In early 2017, the Willow Point Flood forced more residents in Lakeport from their homes. Then in October the Sulphur Fire burned down 162 more structures along the waterfront of Clear Lake, California’s largest natural lake.
Housing in Lake County is being destroyed at an alarming rate. Recovery, meanwhile, is taking its time. Less than 200 homes have been rebuilt since 2015, according to the county administrator.
After Levenson’s house burned down, she says finding a stable place to live was nearly impossible. Three percent of all housing stock in the county had been destroyed, making the rental market highly competitive. On top of that she couldn’t afford to keep shelling out $35 to $65 for each rental application she filled out. And once she did find a place, her insurance company required that she keep house-hunting every three months.
Into this widespread housing crisis stepped an unlikely savior. Levenson is now the longest-term resident of Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa, a place that has its own unique history in Lake County, and that has come to serve an entirely new purpose to survivors like Levenson.
A Last Resort
UA Local 38, Plumbers and Pipefitters Union opened Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa in the small town of Kelseyville in 1959 as a place for union members to vacation. Over the years it became a destination, complete with a 5,000-seat amphitheater that hosted bands like the Scorpions and Kiss. People would come to see live music, jet ski and stay at the 300-room resort.
But a series of lawsuits and financial troubles forced the union to close the resort in 2009.
For years it sat empty, quietly sliding into disrepair. A number of sales were rumored, but ultimately fell through. Then, when disaster struck in 2015, the union stepped in and offered the resort to FEMA and county officials as a place to house fire victims.
Levenson pays about $1,000 a month to stay in what’s essentially a one-bedroom apartment. It’s not without its quirks. Out the sliding glass door she’s got a beautiful view of the lake, and a hot tub that doesn’t work, all framed by rotting green trim. She has gone days without power, running water and heat.
Still, she says, she's just grateful to have somewhere to be, and that the skeleton crew who managed the place treated her and other survivors like guests.
“It sounds mushy, but every county should be so lucky as to have an old defunct resort that could step in like this.”
When she first moved in, Levenson says about 100 other people stayed there. As each new season brought a new disaster, it also brought her new neighbors.
“Right after the flood is when we got the most children,” she says.
This past fire season was no exception.
On Oct. 9, 2017, Bart woke up because she thought the sun was rising.
“It was like Mount Vesuvius had erupted,” she says. “The entire horizon was like more lava oozing down the hill toward the water."
The Sulphur Fire sparked the same night as deadly wildfires ravaged eight counties, including Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino. It created another wave of refugees. Now a total of 18 families displaced by three years of disaster still live here at the resort.
“There are people who died here,” she says. “There have been people who've gotten born here. It's a whole little village. It really is.”
This resort-turned-refugee village still features signage from 2009, Olympic-sized swimming pools containing a few inches of brackish water, and a thatchless tiki bar overlooking the lake.
But where some see decay, others see opportunity. In March, Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa was bought by new owners.
A New Season?
“Our vision for the resort is to really make it a full-service quality resort that's good for people and families, that really emphasizes the waterfront,” says Russ Hamel, managing director of the new Konocti Harbor Resort project.
Hamel says the Bay Area group he represents sees big potential profits in the sprawling property. And if it’s revitalized, Konocti could also bring jobs and opportunity to a local economy that has struggled for years.
But there is still a daunting amount of work to be done, and Hamel and his crew are just getting started on a renovation they estimate could take anywhere from two to five years.
“We literally inherited a city,” Hamel says. “We have our own water treatment plant, we have our own sewage treatment plant, many buildings that have to be maintained.”
As the new staff learn where the light switches are, they are also reaching out to the current residents.
“One of the first things that we did when I got here was I started interviewing everybody,” Hamel says. “I put a note on everybody's door that said we're not the evil empire with the new owners. We're not going to evict anybody.”
Hamel says he will continue to rent to survivors who need somewhere to stay until they can find a more permanent home.
As for its longest resident, Bart Levenson says she is finally checking out.
Levenson says she had no idea it would take this long.
“I'm surprised,” she says. “If I wasn't leaving this, I never would believe it. I'd be judgmental. I just would not be able to understand how long it takes.”