The Last Fire and the Next One

It’s fair to ask whether we should rebuild in disaster-prone areas; but aren’t we all vulnerable now, to one degree or another? The landscape of disaster is changing.

Burned out cars in Middletown, California, after the Valley Fire
Middletown, California, after the 2015 Valley Fire. [Bob Dass]

When you feel like you’ve lost everything, the insurance company makes you write it all down. Donna Taylor’s home in Northern California burned two years ago, along with the homes of her mother and her neighbors and nearly everyone in Anderson Springs. Donna was lucky — she and her family lived, and she had insurance — but now she had to present a full accounting of the loss. Every piece of furniture, every pair of pants, every bobble and jewel. Where do you even begin?

After disaster comes the long, slow process of reckoning with loss, and trying to rebuild a life.

The 2015 Valley Fire — until recently, the third most destructive wildfire in California history 1 — raced ten miles down a mountain in just the first night. Lake County is deep into fire country, but even here people had never seen anything like it. Whipped by 60 mile-per-hour winds, the fire burned 76,000 acres and nearly 2,000 structures before it was controlled. Some 20,000 people were evacuated. Four lost their lives, including two of Donna’s neighbors. 2

A sudden disaster is traumatic in the moment and unbearable in the immediate aftermath. Offers of support flow in, condolences; life hovers and stops for an extended, heartbroken moment. But at a certain point, the catastrophe is over; everyone else moves on while the survivors are left to poke around the remains. Then comes the long, slow process of reckoning with loss, and trying to rebuild a life. It starts (for the lucky ones) with insurance paperwork.

Donna was overwhelmed, so her friend came over to help: “Okay, let’s pretend we’re in your kitchen. What’s right here in this cabinet?” Donna closed her eyes and pictured the plates, the mugs, the food processor. She imagined running her hand along the living room shelves, the bathroom vanity, her mother’s closets, her own. Each newly remembered item was another victory, and another twist of the knife. The insurance only covered things of monetary value, of course. Not her family photos, not her vintage collections; not the door from her childhood home, stored in the basement, which had been etched with her height and the heights of her siblings and neighbors. But at least she had a list.


Fire on Cobb Mountain, near Middletown, California
Wildfire spreads in the hills north of Middletown, on September 12, 2015. [Wikimedia Commons]

On the night of September 12, 2015, after his wife and kids were evacuated, Moke Simon, a leader in the Pomo Indian tribe (and now a county supervisor), stood alone on the roof of the Twin Pine Casino, on the southern edge of Middletown, as the runaway wildfire approached from the north.

Earlier that day, coming out of a tribal council meeting, he had seen the smoke on Cobb Mountain. It was a big fire, he could tell, but far enough out that it appeared containable; the fire crews had already set to work. But within hours the flames had reached the base of the mountain, ripping through a forest damaged by four years of drought. Bright red powder bursts dropped from the sky as planes doused the hillside in fire retardant, but the fire was so strong and so fast that it was nearly impossible to cut a line. Moke remembers the smoke and the flames coming straight at the town, not rising into the air, but pushing forward, horizontally, like a wall.

Moke Simon insisted on staying behind at the casino. Alone on the roof, he could hear the wall of fire approaching.

Donna Taylor was living in Fairfield at the time, an hour and a half south, and she heard the news on the radio. Her brother, who was renting the cabin in Anderson Springs, called to say the fire was headed his way. Donna immediately got in the car for the drive up through wine country, but she wasn’t too worried. They had been forced to evacuate before, and she expected this would be another close call. But as she dropped into Middletown and saw flames tearing down the valley, she understood this fire was not like the others. She found her brother at the Twin Pine Casino, by then a de facto command station where hundreds of people had gathered. Then the police came around to announce a mandatory evacuation.

Moke helped the authorities hustle people out of town. With his teenage son, he broke into the house of a friend who had called and asked him to rescue his dogs. Moke loaded the dogs in the truck with his family and their possessions, and he sent them over the hill to Calistoga. He insisted on staying behind at the casino, to witness the fire, as if sitting shiva for the town.

That night, alone on the roof, Moke could hear the wall of fire approaching. There were propane tanks exploding, trees crashing, glass breaking as houses blew out. It sounded like a war zone. He thought it was all over, this town where he’d been raised, where he’d started a family, gone. How would they ever put it back together?

Neighborhood in downtown Middletown, California, burned after the Valley Fire
Middletown, on the day after the fire. [Randy Pench/The Sacramento Bee via AP]

That the whole town didn’t burn was nothing short of a miracle. He awoke from a tremulous night’s sleep in the casino to find that the danger had passed. In the street he met two boys who played football for the team he coached. They had made it over the hills on ATVs to see whether their home had survived. Moke drove his truck, flanked by the teenagers on their quads, pushing their small relief brigade through the smolder and stench of burned homes. “There’s nothing else like that smell,” he recalled. Many buildings downtown were half burned to the ground; some were gone entirely; water mains spewed into the air. Moke and the football players shut off the water and gas lines, trying to stabilize the wreckage. Then they saw that the boys’ house had burned.

In some areas, entire blocks and cul-de-sacs were leveled. Elsewhere, the fire had hopscotched, skipping one house and torching the next, for no apparent reason. Moke’s house out on the Pomo Indian Rancheria was fine, but many of his friend’s houses, his cousin’s house, his neighbor’s house, his daughter’s house: gone.

Donna Taylor played the video again and again. Then she realized the reporter was standing on her property.

Meanwhile, in Fairfield, Donna pored over the news and social media. She knew that Anderson Springs had burned, but maybe her home was still standing. She trawled the social media pages of animal shelters, hoping that her cat, which had escaped into the hills when her brother left the cabin, was alive. Eight days after the fire, she watched a news clip that showed the ruins of Anderson Springs. She played the video again and again, scanning for clues about where exactly it had been taken. After several passes she realized that the reporter was standing on her property. Nothing was left.

After the fire subsided, workers in hazmat suits began to clear the wreckage. The evacuation order was lifted, and residents came home to sift through the ashes. A local newspaper printed a photo of a woman standing in the ruins of her former home, with her head up to the sky, laughing; she had found her grandmother’s heirloom ring. Weeks after the fire, Donna’s friend tagged her in a Facebook photo. It was the lost cat, now a shadow of its former self, living in a culvert and surviving off scraps from the hazmat workers. They were reunited, and Donna got to work, making plans to rebuild.


Satellite map showing proximity of the 2015 Valley Fire and the 2017 Tubbs Fire
Burn scar of the 2015 Valley Fire. About ten miles away, the 2017 Tubbs Fire — which at press time was 94 percent contained — is now considered the most destructive wildfire in California history. [NASA/Places Journal]

I visited Middletown this past April, 18 months after the area was devastated by wildfire, six months before it would be threatened again. Residents were still in the early stages of putting their lives back together. I saw brand new houses and others under construction, frames whacked up, siding hung, but also many vacant lots. FEMA had come and (mostly) gone. There were 19 relief trailers in town, where there had once been 70.

Moke Simon took me on a drive to show me the anatomy of the fire. His narration was dizzying and hypnotic: “That home burned, that home burned, that burned. These are all new homes that have been rebuilt. That out there burned, this burned, that burned, this all burned.”

His narration was dizzying and hypnotic: ‘That out there burned, this burned, that burned, this all burned.’

We drove up the valley toward Cobb Mountain, then pulled off the highway into Anderson Springs, the small wooded enclave where Donna Taylor’s family lived. It was a former mining camp turned geothermal resort turned vacation home community, and as house prices rose in the Bay Area, more year-round residents had settled here. Nestled in a narrow canyon, surrounded by trees, with only one road in and out, it was a fire trap. Of 250 homes, all but twelve had been destroyed. As we drove up the now-exposed canyon, shoots of green growth camouflaged the ruins. Anderson Creek was running fast. On top of the hill, a single stone chimney, still upright though the house was gone, seemed to mimic the charred trees.

After the fire, Donna had purchased a temporary trailer and hauled it up to her land, and now she was staying there as she waited for permission to build a new home. She had decided to move to Anderson Springs full time, she said, as the magnitude of her loss brought into relief how special the place was. An artist and decorator, she had decked out the trailer with vintage collectibles, lace curtains, a time-weathered window frame on the wall between the bed and the stove. She sells pottery online through Etsy, and she had set up her store on a tarp outside the trailer. Dusty deck chairs rested beneath a shade cover. She told me she liked to sit outside when it was not too hot, listening to the creek, taking in the fresh air among the stalagmite gloom of burned trees. Setting up the camp was “therapy.” She needed to fashion something small while she waited to rebuild everything else.

She liked to sit outside when it was not too hot, taking in the fresh air among the stalagmite gloom of burned trees.

The county had cleared the first round of widow-makers — the charred, dead trees so named because they could fall and kill someone at any time — but hundreds more were tagged with white paint for removal. After years of drought, it had been a wickedly wet winter, and the soil had turned to mud. The dead trees were losing their footing.

Earlier, Moke and I had seen a man in work clothes and a baseball cap clearing away debris from a tree that had crushed his metal porch. “Goddangit,” Moke said. “It took his porch right off.” He shook his head, pained, as we drove past the lot. “He’s going to yell at me for not clearing these trees out yet.” There were a lot of agencies involved in the cleanup, and a lot of trees to be cleared. But when we passed the lot again on our way back to Middletown, the man didn’t yell; he just lowered his head and kept working.


Middletown, California, after the Valley Fire
Middletown, three days after the fire. [AP/Brian Skoloff]

After a disaster, survivors are forced to commit. Do they double down on their old lives? Or cut their losses and make a change?

Donna’s neighbors, the Marellis, took the insurance money and left town. Both 73, they felt they were too old to live in limbo. “We just didn’t want to ruin our 54-year marriage by trying to build a house,” Dorothy Marelli said.

Those who decided to stay and rebuild had to get on with it quickly. The insurance companies sent checks for ten percent of losses to help people get back on their feet, but many recipients did not realize that initial check set the clock ticking, giving them only two years to complete their projects and close out their claims. FEMA granted a six-month extension, but that still left limited time to clear the red tape. The bureaucracy seemed overwhelming — the claim forms, the building permits, the county inspector, the endless backlogs and detours. At the end of the day, “rebuilding falls on the individuals,” Moke admitted. “There’s a lot of frustrated people.”

After the Valley Fire, the state issued new building codes and safety regulations, which mandated the use of flame-retardant materials and the clearing of defensible space around the house. That meant better protection against the next fire but more hurdles to jump through now. And FEMA published a new flood map that put Anderson Springs in the 100-year flood zone. One of Donna’s friends would have to build her new home on thirteen-foot stilts. “Like they do on the coast,” Donna said, with “no lattice, nothing.” The costs started to add up. Another neighbor had twenty acres with dozens of burned trees that had to be removed. Donna herself needed a new concrete bib to connect her driveway with the road. “Every time you turn around it’s going to be $10,000 for this, $5,000 for this,” she said. Every logistical roadblock pushed back the timeline, and threatened to run out the clock. It didn’t help that Lake County is a rural county, with its staff spread thin across a large area and a huge backlog of applications. “They’re working as hard as they can,” Moke said, “but it’s a small team, and they just can’t get the permits approved fast enough.”

Moke Simon with emergency management officials in 2015
Moke Simon, chair of the Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians of California, stands behind federal and state emergency management officials, in 2015. The following year, he was elected to the Lake County Board of Supervisors. [California Office of Emergency Services]

Though she was grateful to the county workers for all they were doing on behalf of the people who lost their homes, Donna was frustrated by the system. She told me what it took to get approval for the plans her engineer had drawn up. First she drove to the fire department to pay a fee, then to the school district, then to the county office an hour away. When she arrived, all the signatories were in a meeting, so she had to wait; then the signatory found a typo (2013, not 2016), so she returned to the engineer, waited for a reprint, drove back to the county for a signature, and raced to turn in the plans before closing time. After that, it took four weeks to get notice of approval, and only then could she start vetting contractors. All this more than eighteen months after the fire.

To complicate the situation, most of the houses in Anderson Springs were constructed before zoning and building codes. Many were built too close to the creek, with illegal septic systems, on lots that don’t comply with current state law. The old structures were grandfathered into compliance, but now those lots can’t be redeveloped unless they are connected to a municipal sewer system (or unless, as one creative owner told The Press Democrat, you put a septic tank on your neighbor’s property). 3

“Every once in a while,” Donna said, “I’ll have a really blue day, where I’m so overwhelmed. Then the next day I can say, okay, I’m building, I know how to do this, I know what the county wants, I’m fulfilling it. But other days I wake up in the morning, and I just don’t want to do anything. I just don’t want to do this anymore.”


Flowers growing by a ruined house in Middletown, California, after the Valley Fire
A photo titled by FEMA, “Plant Regrowth Flowers Signifying Recovery,” taken in Middletown, two months after the Valley Fire. [Adam DuBrowa/FEMA]

We often assume that rebuilding communities after disaster is the right — as in morally correct and rational — thing to do. Get the schools up and running, put food back in the grocery stores, put the houses where they were before, perhaps with minor upgrades like fire-resistant siding or a sprinkler system. A sprawling professional apparatus promotes the concept of “fire adapted communities,” governed by the “wildland-urban interface code,” standards that supposedly tell us how to live safely in fire country. 4 But what use is that, really, in a world of accelerating environmental change?

The ‘wildland-urban interface code’ supposedly tells us how to live safely in fire country. But what use is that in a world of accelerating environmental change?

Disaster Is Relentless, proclaimed the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month, as the worst fires in California history raged out of control in wine country. 5 Thousands of homes burned, including entire subdivisions in Santa Rosa. Middletown and Anderson Springs were under advisory evacuation, as fires burned on all sides; toxic smoke spread for hundreds of miles. Everyone in the Bay Area understood the subtext of that headline. We’d just witnessed Harvey, then Irma, then Maria. Climate change has dried out California and made runaway fires the new normal. 6 When will it come for us, we wondered, secretly and aloud, as we refreshed AirNow.Gov to see how safe it was to go outside, and scrambled to purchase air filters and particulate masks. 7 Most stores were sold out the first day of the fires.

As climate-related disasters hit harder and more often, what is our collective responsibility to survivors? The Valley Fire caused an estimated $1.5 billion dollars in damage, not all of it covered by insurance. 8 In addition to public funding for emergency assistance, there is basic civic infrastructure to rebuild — streets, parks, water systems, the electrical grid — even as local tax revenues have dropped by more than 8 percent. 9 Among the several dozen businesses lost in the Valley Fire was Harbin Hot Springs, a popular tourist destination that employed more than 200 people and contributed roughly a quarter million dollars in taxes. 10

Hazmat teams spray fire sites to mitigate airborne toxic chemicals during debris removal after the Valley Fire in Middletown, California
Hazmat teams spray burn sites in Middletown to mitigate airborne toxic chemicals during debris removal. [Adam DuBrowa/FEMA]

As another deadly fire season hits Northern California, how many businesses and residents will call it quits? A 2009 study in The Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics found that in a given area, “The first fire reduces house prices by about 10 percent, while the second fire reduces house prices by nearly 23 percent.” 11 It’s possible to imagine a future California so hot and dry that fire insurance is not offered at all in some areas, or offered at prohibitively expensive rates, like flood insurance in coastal Florida. It’s one thing to fear your house burning down; it’s another thing to fear that you’ll have no way to rebuild, and that no one will want to buy your patch of scorched earth.

Many people live in places where they probably shouldn’t. The engineered landscape is not always a rational one.

Suzie Blankenship, spokesperson for the state department of forestry and fire protection, known as Cal Fire, acknowledges that many people live in places where they probably shouldn’t, at least not in such large numbers, not in the way that they have been accustomed. It’s important to ask, as Emily Atkin did last week in The New Republic, whether we should stop rebuilding after wildfires. 12 But in the West the frontier mentality lingers, the desire to both live within the wild and to tame it. The engineered landscape is not always a rational one.

Check out a fire risk map of California. See how the red zones bleed into one another. Then study a flood map, a tsunami map, an earthquake map. You could be forgiven for thinking that disaster might take us all. The colonization of California — the unforgivable, genocidal effort to control and break native communities; then to domesticate the land, to reengineer the water systems, to build cities and towns and homes in wild spaces — gave settlers the illusion of control. Fires and floods remind us that humans were never really going to be in charge.

“Mother nature is powerful,” Moke said, over and over, like a chorus, as we drove through the wrecked hills. The soil has been so replenished in the valley that varieties of wildflowers grew this spring that had not been seen in years. “Fire is good for the earth, and for all living things,” he said. “Except for people.”


California forest damaged by pine beetles
California forest damaged by pine beetles. [CalFire]

If the Valley Fire was a warning, it was, like many warnings, both easy to see and easy to misunderstand. Two years ago, California was in severe drought, the driest and hottest it had been in recorded history. Invasive pine beetles had devastated forests and left the dead wood standing: perfect fuel. Climate scientists predicted that the combination of prolonged drought and higher temperatures would produce longer and more severe fire seasons. 13 The warning, in that sense, was perfectly clear.

If the Valley Fire was a warning, it was both easy to see and easy to misunderstand.

What fewer people understood was that rain would not be our savior. In late 2016, a season of biblical rain ended the drought — for now. The water came in buckets and sheets and in great, heaving dumps. Roofs leaked, streets collapsed and sunk (near Middletown, where the fire had destroyed the vegetation, the hillsides eroded and collapsed). County officials diverted the Sacramento River, intentionally flooding fields so as to avoid flooding the capital city. Downstream of Oroville Dam, in the Sierra Nevada, some 180,000 people were evacuated as floodwaters dramatically eroded an emergency spillway. It was a stark reminder that California’s dams and levees and canals were engineered for climatic conditions that no longer hold. It felt like environmental whiplash. One month, farms in the Central Valley were sinking because the groundwater was depleted; the next, they were drowned by flood. But at least the rain would keep the fires at bay?

No.

I talked to Blankenship, the Cal Fire spokesperson, in April. “This fire season, we’re celebrating all the rain we’ve seen,” she said. “But the vegetation is already beginning to come up, and it’s green, very lush right now.” That bumper crop of grasses and shrubs would grow higher and denser than usual. “When all that dries,” she explained, “it will turn into fuel.”

Moke also knew what was coming. “All across the state people are cheering about how the drought’s over and we won’t have no more fires,” he said. “But our grasses are going to be four foot high come September.”

A mountain-top property near Middletown, after the Valley Fire
A mountain-top property near Middletown after the Valley Fire. [Adam DuBrowa/FEMA]

I thought about this false hope a couple of weeks ago when I went hiking with my husband in the parched hills of Wildcat Canyon, near my home in Berkeley. The dry ground cracked, and the desiccated grasses and thistle, bent by an eerie wind, rustled like rattlesnakes. As we climbed the hill, dust devils whirled around us. “It feels like if someone just ashed a cigarette, all of California would burn,” I said.

The next morning, we woke up to a pall of smoke. Fires had broken out in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake counties. I texted a friend who lived up north. “We’re fine,” she said, “But the ranch” — where she’d spent much of her childhood — “is gone.” My friend’s uncle and father had both lived and died there, and her father’s ashes were scattered on the land. We used to play in those hills as kids, and I learned to drive on the property’s dusty back roads. Later, she got married on the ranch. For no practical reason at all — it wasn’t ever my home, and her family had sold the property a couple of years earlier — I burst into tears. I felt a grand sense of loss for that suddenly vanished place, which was a fragment in my collage of home.

Reading the stories of those who escaped the fires and those who did not, and the stories of the thousands displaced by these fires and by other climatic catastrophes across the country and around the globe, I understand that this is just beginning. First comes survival, then comes the reckoning with loss, then the paperwork, and the question of whether, and how, to rebuild.


Earlier this month, Lake County broke ground on a $10.5 million sewer upgrade that will connect Anderson Springs with the wastewater system in Middletown. 14 It’s a victory for owners like Donna Taylor, who can now get permits to rebuild along the creek. Much of the funding comes from the state and federal governments, so the public is in essence subsidizing the community’s rebuilding. We tacitly accept the role of restoring the conditions that existed before disaster.

The question is how we adapt and how we take care of each other.

You might say that’s a mistake, to encourage new building in a place that will be at risk every fire season. But aren’t we all vulnerable now, to one degree or another, under the new climate regime? The question is how we adapt and how we take care of each other.

The sewer project won’t be completed for another couple years — which means four years after the fire. Meanwhile, Anderson Springs is still mostly empty. Some owners have sold their land or chosen not to rebuild; others are waiting for their permits to come through. But there are signs of returning normalcy. This summer they dammed the creek to make a swimming hole, as they do every year, and people came up to hang out on weekends. There’s less shade now, and the widow-makers sway. The valley is full with the sound of cicadas and buzz saws and excavators digging out new foundations. People float in the creek, with their toes above the water. They are waiting to come back for good, or at least for a while, to a new old home.

Editors’ Note

This article was made possible by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

Notes
  1. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “Top 20 Most Destructive California Wildfires,” October 20, 2017. [PDF]
  2. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “Valley Fire Incident Information,” October 15, 2015.
  3. Glenda Anderson, “Anderson Springs Rebuild in Limbo over Sewer Issues,” The Press Democrat, February 7, 2016.
  4. See International Code Council, 2012 Wildland-Urban Interface Code [PDF]; and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “California’s Wildland-Urban Interface Code Information.”
  5. The banner headline ran across three front-page stories in the print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, October 11, 2017. See Khoi Vinh, “Disaster Is Relentless,” Subtraction.com, October 12, 2017.
  6. In fact, the new normal will be much worse, David Wallace-Wells reminds us. See Wallace-Wells, “This Isn’t ‘the New Normal’ for Climate Change — That Will Be Worse,” New York Magazine, October 11, 2017, and “The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York Magazine, July 9, 2017. See also Mike Davis, “El Diablo in Wine Country,” London Review of Books, October 14, 2017. As Davis writes, “The big picture … is the violent reorganization of regional fire regimes across North America.”
  7. See Leora Fridman, “Trying to Breathe in the Bay Area,” The New York Times, October 16, 2017.
  8. Mary Callahan, “Lake County Marks a Milestone in Valley Fire Recovery,” The Press Democrat, September 29, 2017.
  9. Elizabeth Larson, “Valley Fire Impacts Assume Key Role in New Fiscal Year County Budget,” Lake County News, September 15, 2016.
  10. Kurtis Alexander, “A Year After Valley Fire, Visions of Harbin Hot Springs’ New Life,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 12, 2016.
  11. Julie Mueller, John Loomis, and Armando González-Cabán, “Do Repeated Wildfires Change Homebuyers’ Demand for Homes in High-Risk Areas? A Hedonic Analysis of the Short and Long-Term Effects of Repeated Wildfires on House Prices in Southern California,” The Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics 38(2), 155-72, http://doi.org/bbqn8d.
  12. Emily Atkin, “Should We Rebuild Homes in Wildfire Zones?,” The New Republic, October 16, 2017.
  13. U.S. Forest Service, “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work” [PDF], August 4, 2015. More recently, see John T. Abatzoglou and A. Park Williams, “Impact of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Wildfire Across Western U.S. Forests,” PNAS 113(42), 11770-11775, http://doi.org/brsj.
  14. Callahan, op cit.
Cite
Lauren Markham, “The Last Fire and the Next One,” Places Journal, October 2017. Accessed 19 Nov 2017. https://doi.org/10.22269/171024

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