Laura Nichols made her way past the checkpoints Monday, back into the neighborhood where she has lived for the past eight years, and saw that her home had survived, barely.
Huge chunks of ash littered the driveway, residue from the massive Valley fire that broke out in Lake County on Saturday and swept through her rural community of about 6,000 residents, obliterating dozens of homes. She looked up the street to where her best friend, Lisa Kaplan, lived.
Kaplan’s house was gone, and Nichols was left with the duty of calling to tell her the news.
As fire conditions improved in some areas Monday and small bands of residents were able to return to their homes, such searing scenes played out throughout the 95-square-mile fire zone, where hundreds of homes are feared lost and at least one woman has died.
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In Hidden Valley, a bucolic community that includes a gated neighborhood, ranches and a lake in the center of town, the destruction seemed impossible to comprehend.
“Hidden Valley seemed so safe,” Nichols said. “There are streets, it’s residential, and we all felt the firefighters would work to save it. This just happened so fast.”
The speed of the fire stunned even veteran fire officials, who say walls of flames 100 feet high swept through areas and sent embers flying more than half a mile into the air to start new fires.
Kaplan, a local artist, saw the fire approaching Saturday and left for Middletown and the art center there where she works. She watched as the sky turned black and the fire raced toward her home.
Kaplan decided to return home before the fire could reach it; grabbed her dog and cat, a computer and two changes of clothing; and fled.
“I didn’t worry so much about losing my house as how I would get out of Hidden Valley if there were a fire,” Kaplan said. “There’s a lot of people living in a small area, and not a lot of ways in and out.”
By the time Nichols called her Monday, Kaplan already had heard from other friends that her home was destroyed. She said she plans to rebuild.
She and Nichols treasure the community, which is a mix of retirees and younger people from the Bay Area drawn by the arts scene and the resorts and health spas that dotted the landscape before the fire raced through.
Many home and business owners who have not been allowed back into hard-hit areas still do not know the fate of their properties, and Kaplan said she feels fortunate.
“For all the people who live in this area, the worst part is not knowing,” said Kaplan, who is staying with family in Lakeport. “And I feel very fortunate to know so I can take action.”
Kaplan says she will rebuild, and move back into the close-knit community.
“Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody,” she said.