This past summer, three major wildfires burned 170,623 acres (267 square miles) in south Lake County California--where I grew up and where my family lives. I happened to be visiting home for the first two fires (The Jerusalem and The Rocky Fires) but was away for The Valley Fire, the last and worst of the three. The Valley Fire burned 76,067 acres, destroyed over 1,300 homes (1,958 structures), injured four firefighters, and was responsible for the deaths of four residents. It has been declared the third most destructive wildfire in California's history. For the sake of comparison, the Jerusalem and Rocky Fires (while large in terms of acreage) burned only 49 homes combined, with no firefighter injuries or resident fatalities. The Valley Fire tore through three whole communities, whereas the Rocky and Jerusalem fires mostly burned large areas of unpopulated brushy wilderness.
Fair Warning - A few of the photos below show dead and/or partially burned animals.
On September 12, the day the Valley Fire burned through Cobb, Middletown, and parts of Hidden Valley, I was two thousand miles away. I called my mom and found out she was with my sister and her kids in a large irrigated field surrounded by fire. The road to the highway was blocked, and they'd been forced to flee to the 100 acre green pasture about a half mile from our house. Knowing they would be safe in the pasture, my dad had stayed behind to try and fight off the fire. I've never in my life felt more helpless than I did in that moment. Through sheer determination and a bit of luck, my dad was able to save the house, and I flew home three days later to help in any way I could. During that time, I took as many photos as I could and talked to hundreds of affected residents.
There is more to say about these fires than I could ever write here, and many of the stories have already been told. The Valley Fire especially has been the subject of weeks and months of news coverage. Instead of rehashing what media outlets have already covered, I wanted to share a few of my own photos, accompanied by snippets of stories I wrote down and saved while talking to locals in the aftermath of the fire. Most of the people I quote here are close family and friends. I have decided to quote anonymously, mostly because I am drawing from my own notes to the best of my ability, often paraphrasing, and I don't want to misquote anyone. But I also hope that these many anonymous stories can show a certain universality that came with the disaster. Middletown is a small community, and we experienced the fire as a collective whole. Everyone who lived through the fire has their own unique story to tell, but in the end I thought that most of the stories boiled down to two essential truths: everyone went through hell, and everyone lost something.
A note to avoid confusion: While the photos are a mix from all three fires, all quotes pertain exclusively to experiences from the Valley Fire.
"Fire doesn't burn fast downhill, or isn't supposed to anyway. But we sat on the front porch and watched it pull its way all the way down the mountain in under forty minutes. You could see the trees and brush igniting out ahead of it. Each time you looked, there was a fire in a place where there hadn't been a fire a minute before. You know how a cigarette burns when you take a long drag? That's how the fire burned down the hill. That's what it looked like and that's how fast it was. Like someone was sucking the fire down the hill. And the sound of it. A roar, but a roar like you've never heard. So loud that you felt it more than you heard it. It was about then that we felt like we needed to leave."
"I remember that it got dark early from the smoke. The sun hadn't set yet and it couldn't have been later than four or five, but it felt like late evening. And so windy. The wind just whipping everything. I remember that I said to myself I don't like this at all. I'm going outside to water the garden. And as I stood out there with the water running on the tomatoes I noticed that there were black leaves falling out of the sky. But they were leaves from trees that didn't grow near us. Leaves from trees way up the mountain on Cobb. Miles and miles away. I went back inside to grab just a few things and we left shortly after that, never thinking it would be the last time we'd see the house."
"I wasn't in town when the fire came through, of course. But my brother was. I'd heard something about a small fire up on the mountain, and I knew it was moving quickly. But when my brother called and told me that the fire was already there at the house, I immediately got on the phone to CalFire. I must have tried a dozen times before I finally got someone to answer. I gave them our address and told them that we needed structure protection. I asked them where their fire units were and how soon they could be there. At first the man on the phone didn't seem to understand me. He asked if we were still at the house. I told him yes, my brother was there. I remember that he yelled at me. 'ARE YOU MAD?' he said. 'GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT. THERE ARE NO UNITS. EVACUATE. GET OUT NOW.'"
"I've never seen town that busy. This was before the fire came down the hill, when it was still burning up by Harbin. It seemed like the whole mountain had emptied into town. People everywhere--standing on the sidewalks and in the street, taking photos and talking. A lot of people were laughing and excited. I don't think they believed the fire could burn through town. But it kept coming and then people started to leave. They didn't really panic, but they were leaving fast. As fast as they could, anyway. In just a few minutes the highway was a solid line of cars going nowhere. It looked like those movies, you know the disaster-volcano-earthquake ones where everyone is scrambling to leave but they can't. It looked just like that.... Eventually they did get through though. CHP opened up both lanes of the highway. And then the town was empty, except for a couple police cars and fire trucks. All that in about an hour."
"We got stuck in our horse arena. The fire blocked the road and the arena was the closest clear open space we could get to. We drove the truck down there and watched the house go up behind us. The arena never caught fire. There's nothing in there to burn. But the fire was close enough that I started to worry about the heat. I had to keep getting out and pouring water on the windows and windshield to cool them off. We had the engine running and the air conditioner blowing but the window glass was still hot enough that if you touched it, you got burned."
"It was pretty well dark by the time we left. I drove my truck and my daughter followed behind me on the highway. The smoke was so thick that I ended up hitting a horse on the road. I never saw it. You couldn't see anything out the windshield. My daughter, she hit the horse too and got a flat tire. So I got her in with me and we were able to drive the rest of the way out, but I gave up trying to steer through the windshield. I opened my door and found the double yellow line. I drove slow with the door open and used that all the way out."
"Were you hurt by the fire? I was. My place is gone. I just found out today [Five days after the fire]. They wouldn't let us back in until today. I've been staying in Oakland with family and this was the first day they said we could come back and see if our homes survived. I was in my kitchen when it came, the fire. I'd seen the smoke earlier. Far off at first, but then closer and closer until it blocked out the sun. I watched the smoke all evening out my kitchen window and finally when I could see flame, I ran next door to ask my neighbor what he planned to do. He didn't even know there was a fire. He'd been watching a movie on tv. When he came out and saw it he left right then. He didn't even try to grab anything. His place is gone too. I decided I was going to fight it before leaving. I'd cleared the brush all around the house. I thought I could save it. I ran to the backyard and turned on the garden hose, but when the fire came up the hill, the heat from the flames almost knocked me over. It scared me. So I hurried back to my car and drove away. I didn't have time to grab anything. I didn't even think about it. I was scared....
"I wasn't going to come back. I had a pretty good idea the house was gone. But my family made me come. They said I had to see it to make sure. I saw it. I've lived here for 18 years. Since I retired. That house was full of things. My mother's things. My grandmother's things. All gone. All burned or melted. I'm 75 years old. I can't start over. I can't rebuild. Rebuild with what? My whole life was in that house."
"We lost just about everything. But the garage up the hill didn't burn, so I've been living in there. This whole area is supposed to still be evacuated, but I heard people have been up here looting, so I stayed. I have a gun....
"I got water back this morning. Water that's drinkable from the spring down the hill. The creek is fouled. It's running black and full of dead fish. I've been eating whatever canned food I can cook on the camp stove. My mom wants me to come down and stay with her at Grandma's, but I'm not leaving. Too many looters running around. All of Dad's guns were in the house. All gone. But I saved his motorcycle. After the head of the fire passed I drove it into a clearing that'd already burned and threw his leather jacket over it. Some of the plastic melted but it made it. It's about all we've got left of him now. Just that and the jacket. So I'm not leaving."
"Since the fire I haven't slept well. The oak trees that didn't burn are dropping their acorns early and when they fall they bang off the metal roof of the barn. I can hear it at night. It wakes me up. During the fire, trees were falling all over the place, popping and crashing all around us. The falling acorns wake me up every time. When they hit the barn roof it sounds just like the falling trees. And every time I wake up in a panic thinking that the fire has come back and that the trees are burning and falling all over again. But it's not just the acorns. Even in the silence when I close my eyes I see flames in the darkness. Like the world is on fire all over again in my mind."