Valley, Butte fire regions face long road to economic recovery

Angie Lemmon, 52, of Hidden Valley Lake sits in the back of her truck at a temporary shelter set up since Saturday at the Clear Lake Oaks Moose Lodge 2284 on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Lake County. She escaped the flames with some clothing and her dogs as the fire approached her home.
Angie Lemmon, 52, of Hidden Valley Lake sits in the back of her truck at a temporary shelter set up since Saturday at the Clear Lake Oaks Moose Lodge 2284 on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Lake County. She escaped the flames with some clothing and her dogs as the fire approached her home.

The Valley and Butte fires struck areas of the state that could least afford a natural disaster.

Already saddled with relatively low incomes and high unemployment, Lake and Calaveras counties’ rural economies could take years to recover completely. Tourism could suffer, and the destruction of hundreds of homes will prompt residents to leave their communities. Some could leave for good.

State officials said they were particularly concerned about Lake County, where the devastation from the Valley fire was most severe. The toll of homes destroyed is likely to top 1,000, which would make Valley the fifth-worst fire in California history in terms of properties lost. A few tourist attractions have been lost as well, including Harbin Hot Springs, a New Age retreat in Middletown, and Hoberg’s Resort Spa, a Cobb hotel that drew thousands of visitors to a Woodstock reunion concert last year.

Cal Fire said Wednesday evening the Valley fire had charred 70,200 acres and was 35 percent contained, while the Butte fire’s containment was up to 47 percent and had burned 71,780 acres. Officials confirmed the second and third fire fatalities, with the discovery of the bodies of two men a few miles apart in the Mountain Ranch area of Calaveras County. A Lake County woman was found dead earlier this week in the Valley fire.

With temperatures cooling and rain falling Wednesday afternoon, emergency officials started turning their attention to the longer-term puzzle of getting the affected areas back on their feet.

“We have to help Lake County rebuild a tax base. Will people rebuild? How is that going to look?” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services.

Far removed from California’s urban centers, where job growth has been the strongest, the two counties have lagged the recovery. Before the fire, Lake County had 7.2 percent unemployment. Calaveras had 6.7 percent. The statewide average was 6.2 percent.

Lake is one of the poorest counties in the state, with a poverty rate 60 percent above the statewide average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Its median household income is 40 percent lower than the state’s, and its residents are far less likely to have a bachelor’s degree. Calaveras has an aging population; more than a fifth of its residents are seniors, about double the statewide rate.

Both Calaveras and Lake, they have not been performing well economically. This is a setback they can ill afford.

Jeff Michael, an economist at the University of the Pacific

“Both Calaveras and Lake, they have not been performing well economically,” said Jeff Michael, an economist at the University of the Pacific. “This is a setback they can ill afford.”

While the fire spared Lake County’s main tourism hub – Clear Lake itself – Michael said it’s problematic that the fires damaged areas that depend on their natural surroundings to draw visitors and tourism dollars. The Valley fire is the third major blaze to hit Lake County this summer, following the Rocky fire in late July and the Jerusalem fire in late August.

Harbin Hot Springs said on its website that the clothing-optional retreat is closed indefinitely, and asked the public for donations to its staff. Hoberg’s offered few clues to its future, with its website saying the resort’s goal is “to respect and stay true to the spirit of Hoberg’s.”

As for permanent residents, officials want to make sure Lake and Calaveras citizens don’t leave for good, as happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. To that end, the state is scrambling to secure medium- and long-term housing for 3,000 people or more.

“We may have to put up temporary mobile homes, hopefully on their land,” Ghilarducci said. “That helps keep them in the community.”

State officials acknowledged that making Lake County whole won’t be easy.

“Will their tax base come back? It’s certainly a scary situation,” said Nancy Ward, chief deputy director of the state OES.

Added state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose district includes the area affected by the Valley fire: “This fire is going to be talked about for decades to come. The damage is far and wide.”

Ghilarducci said the experience in Weed, a tiny Siskiyou County town that suffered enormous damage in a September 2014 fire, can offer clues to what Lake and Calaveras residents can expect. The town lost more than 150 homes in the Boles fire, or about a third of its housing stock.

“When you lose homes, you lose tax revenue,” said Audra Gibson of a volunteer organization called the Weed Long Term Recovery Group. She said monitoring the news out of Lake and Calaveras counties was painful, “like having to relive it all over again.”

So far, only about 50 of those homes are in the process of being rebuilt, and it’s doubtful that all will be, said Dennis Wilson, an employee of a Weed building-supply store and a volunteer with the recovery group.

Wilson said many property owners moved out of the area, while others found they couldn’t afford to rebuild. “For what they got out of their insurance, it would cost too much,” he said.

Ghilarducci said federal disaster funding could offset the shortfall in insurance proceeds. OES officials, accompanied by federal inspectors, have already descended on Lake County to conduct damage assessments in order to expedite the application for federal relief, he said.

Michael said areas struck by disaster typically get a “modest stimulus” to the economy from reconstruction efforts. However, it’s unlikely the stimulus will be enough to offset the economic hardships caused by the fire.

The destruction in Lake County is not limited to homes. Several geothermal facilities have been damaged. Hundreds of utility poles have been incinerated, along with miles of power lines and a power station. In Middletown, water district facilities suffered extensive damage. Even some roads have been damaged in the blaze.

Just the process of clearing out debris will be costly and arduous, state officials said.

While a full reconstruction will take years, Ghilarducci said “we need to think about the immediate, about the people in the shelters.” Local and state disaster officials and insurance companies have set up tables at evacuation centers helping residents with the basics, such as duplicating lost personal papers, getting new driver’s licenses, tax information and insurance processing.

Calaveras County Supervisor Chris Wright said one underappreciated post-fire concern in the foothills is the damage that has been done to key watersheds that provide water for many valley and coastal cities. Fire has denuded hillsides, making them susceptible to landslides that would send mud flowing into reservoirs, reducing water quality and causing headaches for filtration systems.

“There are hillsides where there is nothing left,” Wright said. “If El Niño comes, we have to get out there immediately to shore them up, otherwise they will wash right down into the reservoir. Others should care, too. That water quality and quantity issue might get lost in the shuffle.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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