Some California fire evacuees return to little more than ash
Sep. 22, 2015
Krystal La Plante and her boyfriend returned to the remains of their three-bedroom home to find only a ceramic drip coffee pot and one of her pottery pieces. Her little "piece of heaven," flanked by trees as high as she could see, was gone.
"I kept walking around asking, 'Where is my home?' I don't understand why it's not here. This isn't where I live,'" La Plante, of Anderson Springs, said Monday.
The scope of devastation from one of California's most destructive wildfires is becoming clearer, and so too is the size of the humanitarian need in one of the state's poorer counties.
Gov. Jerry Brown has requested a presidential disaster declaration, noting that more than 1,000 homes had been confirmed destroyed, with the number likely to go higher as assessment continues in Lake County, 90 miles north of San Francisco. Many others are damaged or don't have power, leaving thousands in need of shelter.
"The biggest challenge is there aren't enough hotel rooms in Lake County," county Supervisor Jim Comstock said Monday. He lost most of his 1,700-acre ranch to fire, but his house was spared.
The blaze was three-quarters contained Tuesday, but more than 3,000 buildings were still at risk.
Comstock said options for housing are limited in the rural county of small towns linked by winding roads. The Twin Pine Casino and Hotel in Middletown set up beds in its event center, but hotel rooms are reserved for displaced tribal members and employees. An evacuation center at the nearby Napa County Fairgrounds is housing about 500 people in tents and campers, he said.
In a letter to President Barack Obama, Brown noted the fire that started Sept. 12 has burned more than 117 square miles and killed three people. At its peak, more than 19,000 people were ordered to evacuate. A "major disaster" declaration releases federal money for recovery efforts.
In the same letter, Brown also sought a declaration for another fire in Calaveras and Amador counties that started Sept. 9. That fire, 125 miles east of San Francisco, destroyed more than 500 homes and killed two people. It was 80 percent contained Tuesday but also still threatens thousands of homes.
Firefighters have made significant progress, and many evacuations have been lifted in the Lake County fire. But schools in the Middletown Unified School District were closed for a second week, and one in the community of Cobb won't reopen for months due to fire damage.
Downtown Middletown has been spared. A bank, auto repair shop and massage business were open for business Monday. Firefighters helped homeowners sift through debris for rings and other valuables. One woman was able to salvage some of her collectible Elvis plates.
Rob Brown, another Lake County supervisor, said they are trying to match homeless residents with semi-permanent housing, either through empty vacation homes or rooms at the long-shuttered Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa in Kelseyville, California.
"That's just some of the patchwork of solutions we're looking for," he said. "We're trying to keep people as close to their original community as possible."
People who have lost their homes or whose homes were too damaged to occupy are finding their own ways to cope.
Annette Lee, a 43-year-old executive dean of Yuba College in Lake County's Clearlake, said she is staying at her late grandfather's vacant home in Nice, on the northern edge of the county.
Her home in a neighborhood of 5-acre lots called Hidden Valley Ranchos was scarred, but OK. Her husband, Shane Lee, spent the day cleaning the refrigerator and meeting with insurance adjustors while she returned to work.
"People have been in survival mode all week, and the shock has kept everyone going," she said. "There's a lot of resiliency, but at the same time, it's overwhelming."
Not so lucky was the home her parents built 30 years ago in the same neighborhood. All that remained was melted metal and ash, nothing like the gracious two-story home Lee said she could still envision, with its fruit orchard and a vegetable garden prized by her mother.
AP photographer Noah Berger in Middletown, California, contributed to this report.