In Lake County, a summer of fire

They wake to sunrises the color of blood oranges, and the faint scent of charred oak and manzanita wafting from the hills above their homes.

A smoky haze lingers, burning sinuses, reddening eyes and prompting cancellations of high school football practices and outdoor playtime at day care centers.

Lake County, nestled in rugged forest terrain about 100 miles north and west of Sacramento, has endured a fire season unlike any other in recent local memory. And residents fear it is only the beginning.

Flames from the epic Jerusalem and Rocky fires have been doused; and communities from Middletown to Clearlake are decorated with signs thanking the thousands of firefighters who battled back blazes that blackened nearly 95,000 acres since late July, much of it in remote wooded areas where tourists long have come to hike and fish.

But residents continue to look toward the horizon, scanning for smoke trails that could mean more destruction and heartache in a summer that is shaping up to be one of the worst for wildfires across the drought-stricken West.

“Everyone is looking, all the time. You can’t help it,” said John Grubb, a sturdily built rancher who has lived in the area for four decades. He gestured to the hills as he tended to horse stables this week in the community of Hidden Valley Lake. “Everything is kindling,” he said. “It’s all just ready to go.”

As of Friday afternoon, more than 12,000 firefighters were attacking 17 wildfires across California, including large blazes in Humboldt and Trinity counties that have consumed more than 130,000 acres. It is too early to say whether this fire season will be historically damaging, said Cal Fire battalion chief Scott McLean. But, in a fourth year of drought that has left the state parched and withered, he said, “we have a perfect storm” for fire.

“Vegetation is at a critical level as far as dryness,” McLean said. “We’re talking about stands of trees that have been around a long, long time, and every one of them is vying for those bits of nutrients that might be left. Trees are dying,” he said, in part because of a bark beetle invasion.

Lake County, home to 64,000 people, long has been a destination for summer tourists, drawn by its well-stocked lakes and mountains cloaked with thick stands of oak, sage shrub and grasses.

This year, it also has been an epicenter for wildfire. The first, called the Rocky fire, erupted near Clear Lake on July 29. A week later, the Jerusalem fire exploded near Middletown. Hot weather, brittle trees and brush and the area’s steep topography created a ravenous firestorm that forced thousands of people from their homes and destroyed 52 residences and 70 other buildings.

“These fires were burning as if a wind was behind them, but that wasn’t the case,” McLean said. “The conditions are such that most people have never seen anything like it before.”

Willem “Bill” Hilbrandie, 81, was among those who fled with next to nothing. He left five minutes after a sheriff’s deputy pounded on the door of his house near Lower Lake and told him fire was bearing down on his property. The blaze took his home and a lifetime of possessions. His sister, 83, has a home on the same property that also burned to the ground. They managed to save their four beloved dogs but lost treasured photographs, record albums and books, among other things.

“My home is a pile of ash,” Hilbrandie said, sporting a brown cotton shirt imprinted with the words “Rocky Fire 2015, Lake County.” “There is nothing left.”

For the past two weeks, he and his sister have been living in a dusty trailer on a friend’s property, surviving on help from the Red Cross, Salvation Army and community donations. They aren’t sure where they go from here.

“The mornings are the worst,” Hilbrandie reflected. “You wake up and you ask yourself, ‘What am I going to do now?’ ”

Nearly everyone in Lake County has been affected by the summer of fire, though most less profoundly than Hilbrandie. Wide swaths of eastern Lake County, once flush with forest, are now barren, seared to the color of hot charcoal briquets. Large stands of white pine reach charred arms toward the sky. Sprawling ranches have burned to blackened moonscapes.

While residents evacuated alpacas, horses and other large animals, many cats and dogs have gone missing. A sign off Morgan Valley Road near Lower Lake pleads for the return of Silver, Bobble, Marmalade and Andy, cats lost during the Jerusalem fire.

John Olson of Hidden Valley Lake prepared for escape when the flames came within a couple of miles of his place, packing up his dogs, important papers and rations in case he needed to escape. Thankfully the winds shifted, and with them the flames, leaving behind a thick dusting of ash and unbearable air quality.

Olson has refused to give in to the conditions, riding his bicycle 40 miles each morning to and from Lower Lake. “A few times the smoke was so thick that it probably wasn’t wise to ride,” he said. His eyes and throat burned. But he kept pedaling.

This week, though the air still carried hints of smoke, he shot baskets at a community park. “All in all, I think the firefighters did a fantastic job,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone feels we’re out of the woods. It will be a couple of more months before we’re comfortable.”

In a strangely beautiful twist to the devastation, the area has been treated to gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, colored by the dust and pollution that still hover. And for all the structural losses, Lake County residents are mindful of the fact that none of their citizens died in the fires. Five firefighters have lost their lives as wildfires have ripped through the West this summer.

All across Lake County’s altered landscape, handmade signs praise the efforts of volunteers and firefighters who worked to save lives and homes, calling them heroes and saviors. In the thick of the battle, families hosted fire crews in their homes, paid for their meals at restaurants, kissed their cheeks.

Now, the process of cleaning up and moving forward begins. Workers from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control are going door to door in damaged areas, offering waste collection services. The county has applied for disaster assistance funding to help with debris cleanup and tree removal. The Red Cross is arranging lodging for people who have lost their homes. The county’s Office of Emergency Services is working to protect the area’s precious watersheds from toxic substances unleashed by the fires, including asbestos, household cleaners and lead.

Once the threat of summer fires subsides, preparations for El Niño storms, which could bring flooding and landslides, will kick into full gear.

“It’s already been a crazy year,” said county spokeswoman Jill Ruzicka. “We can’t let our guard down. We’ve got to be ready.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert