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“When the wind picked up, the fire spread
And the grapevines seemed left for dead
And the northern sky looked like the end of days
The end of days”
“The firemen worked in double shifts
With prayers for rain on their lips
And they knew it was only a matter of time”
Excerpts from “Grapevine Fires” by Death Cab for Cutie
The horrendous first days of the Valley fire, which roared to life on September 12th, has drifted in to the shadow of endless nightmares. A month has passed and very few residents have begun the process of cleaning what remains of their homes. The laborious task of sorting through local, state and federal regulations has begun and those affected by Lake County’s summer of destruction will spend months sloshing through red tape and yet unknown frustrations.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been in to the fire zone; the miles logged and the incredible people I’ve met since it all began. I’ve listened to the horrible and frightening stories of escape, talked to children and adults alike who’ve recounted over and again stories of peril, survival and loss. The dreams are much the same as mine, fires raging, homes burning. Angst and sleepless nights coincide with dread. Although I didn’t suffer any personal loss to the Valley fire, being witness to such physical and emotional carnage takes a toll on mental well being. Up until last night, the dreams had been nightly. I can’t imagine what the PTSD will be like for fire victims.
Shock usually wears off within a few days of a personal disaster. The complexity and enormous scope of the fire has delayed some normal reactions, at least from what I have seen. Residents are still open to questions and photographs. Those stories need to be told and am grateful for an opportunity to do just that. Years ago, I received great advice from a colleague at another newspaper that I needed more intimacy within my photographs. As the Press Democrat coverage continues, my goal is to tell stories that will move, bring about change and show real life as it unfolds in front of the camera.
Working on a story about tree cutting in the fire zone which ran in today’s paper, I came across David Neft, a Cobb resident who was sorting through the remains of his Hobergs Drive home. His brother Leonard Neft, died as the fire swept through Anderson Springs. He told tales of his sibling, a man who at times kept to himself and loved the solitude of Anderson Springs. Brothers who argued, as relatives are apt to do, but spoke to each other with love and compassion. Bonded together with blood, forever tied to the Valley fire as victims. He continued to sift and dig as the warm October sun rolled across the sky, shadows growing longer. Neft says he’s taking it “Minute by minute, some days are good and some days are bad.”
Tammy Snow was the manager of the Middletown apartment complex (below) that burned to the ground in the hours after the Valley began. She was a resident too and like other survivors, has been sifting through the rubble of her apartment to find personal keepsakes, small physical links to a past.
The managers’ family, lifelong Lake County residents, helped with sifting. Calmly, methodically, shovel after shovel full, rocking back and fourth. She told the story of a young firefighter, 22, who lived in the complex. He and his crew were on the Butte fire and called back as part of a strike team to defend homes in Middletown. Arriving late in to Saturday night, the crew set-up shop defending the very apartment the young man lived in. The fire was too much, the water pressure to low. Valiantly they defended, Snow said, but were beat back by the sheer ferociousness of the blaze. As she finished the story, Snow laughed triumphantly, throwing her head heavenward, finally finding the object of the search. Her grandmother’s rings.
Samantha Wood drove up and parked on the slightly slanted driveway of her Cobb Home. The house she and husband Josh shared with their two children had disappeared in a matter of minutes as the fire raced through. Transplants from Southern California, the two had carved out a nice existence in the oasis of Cobb’s pines. She had a garden with roses and vegetables and loved the sound the trees made when wind would caress the pine needles. Her kids love the school they go to, Cobb Elementary, and have many friends. Josh, a beer brewer practiced his craft at home. “A perfect place to raise a family,” she said. Wood was upset that some pines on her property were marked for cutting. The family promptly covered over the ‘X’ painted on the trees, as if to say, the fire took our home, don’t take our trees. “We will rebuild, we will be back,” she said.
With that, she used a gallon of water and quenched the asparagus she had planted before the fire. In palette of surrounding blackness, the plant is taking root. Even the grass is coming back, due to the local water company’s effort of erosion control, by watering the area down with water trucks.
A meeting was held for those affected by the Valley fire at Middletown High School. It was the first time the entire community had been together in one place since the blaze. Free food was provided by CalPine. FEMA and other organizations were on hand to answer questions about financing. Under a setting sun, clouds created a most surreal landscape. The PG&E utility command base was a stones throw from the football stadium where the meeting was held.
Life will get back to normal slowly and hesitantly. The biggest hurdle from the parents perspective was to get kids back to school, in to a normal routine, to laugh and be with peers. It wasn’t without emotion during the first day back in Middletown but it was obvious the kids needed to be back in their groups, to not talk about the fire. It was much needed sanity in world thrust upside down for teachers and students.
Pacific Gas and Electric responded to the Valley fire quickly. Crews from all over California descended on south Lake County within hours of the fire, mobilizing a force that numbered in the thousands. Crews were directed not to talk with the media, not even give their names.
There are also signs of hope, determination, warning and thanks.