Sheila Roseneau used to drink her morning coffee looking out her kitchen window at the peaceful forested landscape of Anderson Springs, a mountain retreat founded in 1873 in a narrow valley filled with natural springs, creeks and lofty pines.
Then the Valley fire roared through last month, destroying houses and decimating the forest. Roseneau’s green one-story house was one of the few that survived. Now from her kitchen window she sees blackened trees, homes burned to ashes and the charred metal skeletons of cars.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said, blinking back tears.
The Valley fire in southern Lake County was the third most destructive in state history. Witnesses described towering flames that swirled like tornadoes and moved at the speed of a race horse. Over a few days, the fire claimed 1,280 homes and burned 76,000 acres before a massive firefighting effort, cooler temperatures and light rain brought it under control.
One of the worst-hit communities was Anderson Springs, where two people died and nearly all the homes were destroyed. (Early reports said nine of 200 homes survived. A recent count by The Sacramento Bee suggested that about 15 homes were left standing and 150 to 175 destroyed.)
Owners of the surviving homes say they’re grateful but also saddened by the loss of the bucolic setting that drew them to Anderson Springs and of the close-knit community of artists, alternative thinkers and rural workers that distinguished it as a place apart from the modern world.
“It was a hidden gem – an oasis of community, creativity and calm,” said Whitney Vosburgh, whose two-story house, with a deck overlooking Anderson Creek and delicate, green Japanese maples out front, looks just as it did before the Sept. 12 fire.
“Our house was saved, but we lost our home,” Vosburgh said. He described feeling relief mixed with survivors’ guilt.
As he lamented the loss, Vosburgh recalled summers at Anderson Springs filled with potlucks, outdoor movies and gatherings at the recreation center for games of pingpong and bocce and dips in the neighborhood pool, a dammed section of Anderson Creek.
“It was verdant with a brook running through it,” Vosburgh said. “It was a kind of a time warp.”
Today, most of the community looks as if it was bombed. Those who returned after a mandatory evacuation order was lifted Sept. 24 found it unsettling. Some, unable to cope, have already left again, residents said.
As crews strung power lines and felled large trees last week, Angelo Parisi raked through the rubble of the dream house he’d built in 2008 with the latest in energy-saving technology, recycled materials and a view across the valley.
In an anguished voice, he said the few items he’d salvaged – bits of pottery, a metal wall hanging – were more depressing curiosities than useful belongings.
“It feels morbid picking through the remains,” Parisi said.
His guitars, horns and an expensive mixing board were gone. So was his wife’s studio, where she made costumes for high-wire artists, and a large telescope he’d been especially proud of owning. He found its former 12-inch mirror – a brittle, molten mess – in the ashes.
Parisi said he was aware of the area’s fire danger and took precautions such as using fire-resistant siding on his house, but the Valley fire proved too powerful.
“I knew this house wasn’t going to be here forever,” he said. “I just hoped it would last a little while longer.”
Parisi said his wife refused to return to their house and had been crying since the fire. Some of the keepsakes he’d found, such as her mother’s handmade pottery, had made her feel better, he said.
“We had such a good life here,” Parisi said. “We cherished every day.”
Across the street, his neighbor’s blue farmhouse-style home sat unharmed. The family that owned it – a couple with two teenage daughters – had moved back but only stayed for a weekend because they were too troubled by the surroundings, he said.
“The girls were freaked out,” he said. “They left after a couple of days.”
The valley of Anderson Springs nestles into the Mayacamas Mountains above the Napa Valley. It’s roughly 1 1/2 miles long and a quarter mile wide. At its head are a number of mineral springs, cold and hot, that prompted a young doctor from Vallejo, Aleck Anderson, to build a hotel there in 1873.
Vacationers and permanent residents have been building homes since the property changed hands in the 1930s. Wildfires have swept through the area before, destroying some homes, but never on the scale of the Valley fire. The wind-driven firestorm devoured a landscape parched by California’s historic drought.
Residents, about half of whom lived here full time, couldn’t re-enter the community for 12 days. Many took refuge at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga or other evacuation shelters. In recent days, they’ve trickled back. Most could only sift through the ashes, looking stunned, and meet with insurance adjusters and contractors.
A few went back to their houses.
Voris Brumfield, 67, was one of the fortunate ones. The former Lake County supervisor and local historian moved to Anderson Springs 40 years ago from Yuba City.
She and her husband, who died 14 years ago, were looking for a wooded setting in the mountains, she said. They found an old cabin and renovated it into a modest home, trimmed in red, at the confluence of Anderson Creek and Bear Canyon Creek.
After the fire she was shocked to find the house and its immediate surroundings largely unchanged. Plums, quinces and apples hung from her well-watered fruit trees, and gentle sunlight filtered through the pines. The sound of flowing creeks lent the scene a gentle air.
Brumfield can see a partly singed hillside now from her floor-to-ceiling kitchen window, and she’s bothered by the smell of chicken that rotted in the refrigerator for nearly two weeks after the power went out.
Yet she knows how lucky she is. Her friend Leonard Neft, 69, a former San Jose Mercury News reporter, died a short distance from her home as he was trying to escape the flames in his car. Another resident, Barbara McWilliams, 72, perished in her home after being unable to escape. Yards away, there’s nothing left of a neighbor’s house except the dog run.
Brumfield said a friend believed her late husband had protected the house and the natural oasis around it.
“She felt it was his spirit because he loved it so much,” she said. “He chose this house. He loved water.”
Roseneau, whose tidy green house was the last left on her stretch of Anderson Springs Road, said she, too, was stunned that her home and all her belongings survived. She and her husband fled the fire with only an overnight bag and some family photos.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said. “I’m happy but sad for my community.”
Roseneau said they were staying at her daughter’s home near Clear Lake when her husband woke with her at 5:30 a.m. with the news that their house was still standing. He’d seen it on a YouTube video that a neighbor had filmed driving through the wreckage.
“I dropped to my knees and praised God. It’s a blessing,” she said. “The dogwood tree’s all burnt, but it didn’t get any closer. Maybe the wind shifted.”